Proms Matinée (1) – Music to celebrate Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s 75th birthday

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bennett, Dutilleux, Maconchy: Paul Silverthorne (viola), London Sinfonietta, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London. 13.8.2011 (CG)

Richard Rodney Bennett: Dream Dancing (1986)
Henri Dutilleux: Les citations (1985-1990)
Maconchy: Romanza (1979)
Richard Rodney Bennett: Jazz Calendar (1964)

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett is celebrating his 75th birthday this year, and this was one of two Proms to include his music, the other being the Film Music Prom on August 12th, in which his music for “Murder on the Orient Express” was included. I can’t help feeling it a great pity that the BBC couldn’t have pulled out some more stops for this extraordinarily talented composer; could we not have had one of his three symphonies, or one of his many concertos, or even one of his works for choir and orchestra, such as Epithalamion? One is spoilt for choice; Bennett has displayed an almost Mozartian prolificacy and counts as one of the most natural-born composers ever. Nowadays he prefers to live in New York, and loves to play and sing jazz and accompany his favourite singers, and consequently his output as a composer has slowed. Interestingly, it has also undergone a stylistic change; his music is more tonally based and less strident than it was following his studies with Pierre Boulez. Bennett would say he’s “grown up,” but it would be a terrible shame to dismiss the music he wrote through the 1970’s and 80’s – it is choc-a-bloc full of inventive expression and yet always eminently playable and approachable. Let’s not forget the fantastic impression his early opera The Ledge made in 1961, or The Mines of Sulphur in 1963, in which he developed an expressionist technique sometimes reminiscent of Alban Berg, or the three symphonies, which demonstrate his development as a symphonic composer.

If one has to be content with relatively small mercies, this afternoon’s concert at least presented two very different sides of Bennett’s output; Dream Dancing is one of his “serious” works from the mid 80’s whereas Jazz Calendar is a set of jazzy pieces for an ensemble of twelve jazz players, composed to a commission from the BBC.

Bennett’s starting point for Dream Dancing was the later music of Debussy, which he has always loved. The ensemble, consisting of flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harpsichord, piano/celesta, harp, violin, viola, cello and double bass, is even inspired by Debussy’s late sonatas; the French composer had intended to write a series of six sonatas for small chamber groups, but only finished three. Bennett includes the intended instruments of the unwritten pieces, as well as the finished works. There are other influences of Debussy pervading Bennett’s score – Syrinx for solo flute, and reminiscences of other pieces, such as Masques (1904) which provides the rhythmic basis of the second movement. But this music doesn’t sound like Debussy; it is composed in Bennett’s freely wandering semi-atonal style, which, being the superb musician he is, always has harmony and harmonic momentum. The performance was excellent, from the fluently autumnal nature of the first movement to the more jumpy, rhythmic character of the second, and Sir Richard, sitting in the audience, looked very happy.

The French theme continued with the second piece; Dutilleux composed the first part of Les Citations in 1985 when composer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Festival, and it contains a brief reference to Peter Grimes by way of homage to Peter Pears. Then, in 1990, he composed the second movement, and added a double bass to the instrumental ensemble of oboe, percussion and harpsichord. There is a quotation from one of Dutilleux’s composer-colleagues who was killed in action during World War II, Jehan Alain, and another quotation from a theme and variations by Alain with a motif ascribed to Janequin used in one of his organ pieces. This seldom performed piece makes considerable demands of the four players. It is composed with Dutilleux’s acute ear much in evidence, and, as always with Dutilleux, there is plenty for the listener to hang on to, even when the music becomes extremely intense. Gareth Hulse negotiated the extraordinarily difficult oboe part with panache, and the ensemble between all four players was immaculate; it was a marvellous performance.

Next came an opportunity for Paul Silverthorne to display his command of the viola in the Romanza by the hugely-neglected Elizabeth Maconchy. This is scored for solo viola with a chamber ensemble of five wind instruments, string quartet and double bass. Bennett has enduring respect and admiration for Maconchy’s music, and the two became good friends until her death in 1994. Here we were in a predominantly “autumnal” mood again, the viola weaving long expressive lines over a richly orchestrated backdrop, but there’s much variety here too, and a good deal of contrapuntal writing. It is difficult to understand why Maconchy’s music is not better known – it is attractive, expressive, and superbly crafted. For those who do not know the string quartets (there are no less than thirteen) I can thoroughly recommend them!

All change on the platform, and now the London Sinfonietta suddenly became an ensemble of top London jazz musicians. Jazz Calendar is in seven movements inspired by the nursery poem “Monday’s Child” and became one of Sir Richard’s best known works when it was taken up in 1968 by Sir Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet, and performed at the Royal Opera House for about ten years. Now on the platform and in conversation with Christopher Cook, the composer explained how he admired the arranging skills of Marty Paich and Gil Evans, and wanted to incorporate some of their techniques into his piece. It’s not crossover music; it has nothing to do with the movement called “Third Stream,” which sought to combine the best of classical and jazz; it is straight-ahead jazz of a relatively comfortable kind which a great many people find hugely enjoyable. It’s expertly done, and this afternoon it was expertly played. And it was lovely to see a beaming Sir Richard on the platform afterwards receiving the enormously enthusiastic applause.

Christopher Gunning