Sunday, 28 January 2018

Richard Rodney Bennett: Marimba Concerto

I am delighted that Chandos have ‘restarted’ their series of CDs featuring the orchestral music of Richard Rodney Bennett. Several years ago (2006) the company issued Volume 1 of what promised to be a ‘cycle’ of the composer’s music. This CD (CHAN 10389) included the Partita, Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune, Songs before Sleep, and Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song. Richard Hickox conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra: soloists included Paul Watkins, cello and Jonathan Lemalu, baritone.  To be fair to Chandos, there were subsequent releases of RRB’s music: The Film Music, in 2000; the opera The Mines of Sulphur in 2005 and a fine selection of ‘standard’ songs by several composers and sung by RRB. This latter is one of my favourite CDs. His voice has the same impact on me as the late, great Peter Skellern.

The main event the new CD (CHSA5202) is the Symphony No.3 (1987). Also featured is Summer Music (1982), the Sinfonietta (1984) and the present Marimba Concerto.

For the curious, a Marimba is an instrument often associated with Mexico, but long included in the percussion section of large symphony orchestras. The technology consists of graduated wooden blocks suspended on wooden resonators. It is played with drumsticks. Several important Concertos have been composed for this instrument, including those by Paul Creston and Darius Milhaud.  

In 1984 RRB had composed a work for solo marimba called After Syrinx II. It was dedicated to William Moersch. The inspiration for this piece was based on Claude Debussy’s well-known piece for solo flute, Syrinx (1913).
Anthony Meredith (Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, Omnibus Press, London, 2010) takes up the story of the work’s genesis.  He cites Moersch recalling that ‘Richard suggested that he would write a marimba concerto for me’ but this was dependent on receiving a commission and the promise of a performance.  This was duly agreed, and a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Fellowship was gained ‘to present a solo recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.’ The promise of a New York performance was a sufficient ‘enticement’ to the Lehigh Chamber Orchestra to take on this piece. 
Moersch (op.cit.) notes that composer apparently had ‘balance issues between the marimba and the orchestra.’ What resulted was a two-movement work. The first, Con moto, was written for a chamber orchestra with the marimba scored ‘in the more traditional hand-to-hand manner’, accompanied by the orchestra. The more technically demanding moments were relegated to solo cadenzas. The second movement, Con brio is a different kettle of fish. Meredith (op. cit.) states that here the soloist ‘at all times holds the centre stage, with the orchestra responding the best it can…’ The climax of the work ‘where the marimba seems to speak on behalf of all the players is a cadenza which is as Moersch notes, is ‘perhaps one of the most athletic and demanding the repertoire.’’
The work was completed in New York City, 17 January 1988. The premiere followed on 11 March of that year. The Lehigh Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Donald Spieth at Muhlenberg College Center for the Arts, at Allentown, Pennsylvania. 
The first British performance of the Marimba Concerto was at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon on 21 May 2001.

Robert Matthew-Walker ( - October 2017) reviewing this CD insisted that ‘the epic Marimba Concerto, an innovative piece for the composer, moving from a colorful and lyrical first movement to highly virtuosic passages and strikingly athletic cadenzas. The demanding solo part is tackled here by the multi-award-winning Colin Currie nowadays seen as the world's finest and most daring percussionist, as well as a champion of contemporary music.’

The Gramophone reviewer (Edward Seckerson, January 2018) writes that the Concerto for marimba and chamber orchestra ‘is an excellent example of Bennett exploring the possibilities of a particular instrumental ‘palette’ and finding music which will best express its character. Dreamy and sensuous. It’s as if the marimba…has insinuated its way into someone else’s ‘trip’. It assumes a super-discreet, obligato-like role outside of the cadenzas and the only concerto-like confrontation occurs in the second movement, where it displays an uncharacteristic defiance.’

From a personal point of view, I enjoyed this work for the wonderful synthesis of jazz inspired passages, light music, something a little more modernistic and the sheer technical virtuosity of the solo part.

There is a performance on YouTube of the Marimba Concerto by Filippo Lattanzi, marimba and the Orchestra Cantelli conducted by Flavio Emilio Scogna. 

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