BENNETT Orchestral Works Vol 2 (Wilson)
This is the second volume of John Wilson’s ‘celebration’ (for that’s what this series surely is) of Richard Rodney Bennett’s manifold gifts as a composer – and once more the choices rejoice in his creative shapeshifting.
The accomplished jazzer is first up. But his Concerto for Stan Getz was custom-made to gift the legendary saxophonist a whole new landscape. It was the classical piece he craved but sadly never got to play. Even as the music was being faxed to him (1990) he was ailing and fading fast. Scored for timpani and strings, this exhilarating work seeks to honour Getz’s free spirit while harnessing it to a new-found symphonic rigour. The first sound we hear from the tenor sax soloist (the excellent Howard McGill) is a howl from street level. This is the tough visage that the instrument less often shows us and it plays against a driving insistency in the orchestra.
But the ‘nighthawk’ crooning is there too, of course, snatching at lyricism, restless to be set free in the cadenza where Bennett finally offered Getz some reflective moments of improvisation. It all points to the swooning enticements of the slow-movement Elegy in which Bennett’s movie credentials (here decidedly ‘noir’) proffer a luscious melody most of us would swear we’d heard before even if we hadn’t.
Symphony No 2 – written in 1967, at the peak of Bennett’s early avant-garde wanderings – is an atonal piece that’s damned if it’s going to be perceived as such. It’s big on dynamic contrasts. The tension between the imperative and the lyric is (like the opening movement of the Concerto) key to its intrigue. It’s taut, concise and fizzing with incident, now propulsive, now reflective, now ethereal. Indeed, its still centre is as beautiful as it is ephemeral. Wilson’s performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is most accomplished and, more importantly, persuasive, full of atmosphere in those distilled moments.
The remaining works – Serenade for small orchestra (1977) and Partita (1995) – are brimful of singing diatonic tunes and an air that is uniquely English even when clearly alluding to other nationalities. What Bennett displays in the Partita is so redolent of William Walton, not least the viola melody in the super-lush Lullaby. There’s that ever-present sinuous touch of the exotic. Walton’s Mediterranean streak.
But most revealing of all – and perhaps the biggest testament to Bennett’s prowess as a composer – is the fact that whether he’s flexing his intellectual muscle in the Second Symphony, schmoozing in the Sax Concerto’s slow movement or simply having a good time in the Partita, this is unmistakably the work of the same composer.