Sunday, 30 July 2017

Discovering Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber ensemble (1960) Part II

As noted in the previous post, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber orchestra was released on Four British Composers, ALP 2093/ASD640, during 1965. The performers on this album included members of the Melos Ensemble conducted by John Carewe. Artists featuring in the other works on the album were Geoffrey Shaw (baritone), Pauline Stevens (contralto), Rosemary Philips (contralto) and Mary Thomas (soprano).  The John Alldis Choir was conducted by Alldis.

Edmund Tracey writing in the Manchester Guardian (17 October 1965) believed that all the works on this LP reflected ‘…four of the most recent British composers to have made an individual stir on the musical scene and this record will give some idea of their capacities.’

The Musical Times (September 1965) reviewer, fellow composer David Blake, wished ‘…that Bennett's Calendar gave me as much pleasure…’ as Malcolm Williamson’s Symphony for Voices. The greatest compliment that he could pay was ‘…that it provides effective contrast.’ He hoped that it was simply a ‘block’ on his (Blake’s) part.

A detailed appraisal of the album was provided by Frank Granville Barker in Music and Musicians (October 1965).  Unfortunately, he said comparatively little about Calendar: ‘Bennett is the sophisticate of the quartet, fluently skilled in several styles that are kept quite separate from one another according to their different purposes.’ He reflects that the present work ‘makes dramatic use of melody and harmony in [a] changing instrumental perspective.’ From a technical point of view Barker thinks that Calendar was recorded ‘in sharper focus’ than the other works on the LP.’

Anthony Payne (Tempo, Spring 1966) was impressed by the ‘…the sheer craftsmanship of Bennett's Calendar for chamber ensemble is a joy to follow.’ Giving an overall rating of the album he observes that ‘the performances by members of the Melos Ensemble under John Carewe…are impeccable, and the recording clear.’ Payne, so it should be noted, had produced the introductory notes for the album.

The most comprehensive analysis was given in The Gramophone (September 1965). J.N. (Jeremy Noble) wrote:
‘[When I turned] …to Richard Rodney Bennett's Calendar… one cannot help being struck by his far more fluent command of his medium.  Where Davies often seems to be composing against his instruments, or at least in spite of them, Bennett's almost seem to do his composing for him, so natural is the result. For him, too, continuity seems to pose no problems; the two outer movements of Calendar are quite complex in shape, yet I found no difficulty in following the general outlines of the argument without a score. The danger with so fluent an imagination and so accomplished a command of the sheer craft of composing is obviously facility, and I don't think that Bennett has always avoided it. In this he is very similar to Britten, who has also been ready on occasion (especially in instrumental works) to let ingenuity do the work of imagination. But the mere fact that the comparison can be made is some indication of Bennett's position among the younger generation of English composers.'

A decade later, J.H. reviewed the re-issue (ARGO ZRG 758) of this disc (The Gramophone, May 1975). He was generally pleased that the four works on this album had appeared again. He insisted that they were originally ‘well-chosen to illustrate the musical characteristics of these four composers.’  He felt that ‘only Richard Rodney Bennett…fares less well than the others: Calendar (for chamber ensemble) is attractive and well-made, but just a little faceless compared with most of his vocal music.’ Not a fair assessment, when one examines the wide range of Rodney Bennett’s music which includes many splendid and musically diverse genres: orchestral, chamber, stage, instrumental and vocal music.

A backward glance was given by Elliot Schwartz to Calendar in his review (The Musical Quarterly October 1977) of this re-issue:
Calendar is, one would guess, not a major work. It is more likely to be regarded, even by its highly prolific and eclectic composer, as a casual, incidental piece of occasional music. It is successful, in part, precisely because it is so unpretentious: a charming, atonal ‘divertimento’ - or, given the ease and stylishness of it all, and the fact that Bennett had just recently studied in Paris with Boulez, a ‘divertissement.’ For a composer aged twenty-four (in 1960), it is a particularly impressive feat.’

Finally, Paul Griffith writing in the Musical Times (September 1975) suggested that Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar is exactly ‘the sort of music that George Gershwin might have written if he had come into contact with [Anton] Webern.’  It is an extremely apposite and perceptive summary of this work.

Three works on this LP are available on CD. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar and Peter Maxwell Davies Leopardi Fragments have been released on Icon: Music among Friends: Melos Ensemble, Warner Classics (5099991851451). This is a remastering of the original LP. Malcolm Williamson ‘Symphony for Voices’ has been given a new recording on Naxos 8.557783 (2006). I am not aware if the version on this present LP has been re-issued. I think not. Finally, Alexander Goehr’s Two Choruses, op.14 does not appear to have been re-issued. 

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