This second installment of Chandos's new survey of Richard Rodney Bennett's orchestral (non-film) music brings more of the same and at least one real surprise.
Those who have enjoyed Vol. 1 of this series from John Wilson and the fabulous BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, will be pleased with the Serenade for Small Orchestra and the Partita contained here on Vol. 2. They are cut from the same musical cloth, so to speak, and occupy the same musical landscape, even though they span the decades from 1976 to as late as 1995. Indeed, these on Vol 2 sounded so familiar and so much like the Summer Music and the Sifonietta on Vol. 1, I checked the booklet more than once to confirm they were not duplicated on both CDs! They are indeed different works. However, it is worth noting that the Partita is duplicated on Chandos's first effort on a symphonic cycle from this composer, recorded in 2006, with the late Richard Hickox conducting.
These works feature the same beauty of recorded sound heard throughout the first volume, with lovely, sumptuous playing from all departments of this fine orchestra.
This program begins with the Concerto for Stan Getz, for tenor saxophone, timpani and strings. This is an interesting work, sounding nothing like the lighter fare mentioned above, and certainly nothing like the Symphony No. 2 (more below). In fact, many sections, especially the 3rd movement, remind me of French composer Henri Tomasi's Saxophone Concerto (for alto sax), with its rich orchestration, spiky, rhythmic propulsion, and a free-flowing, rhapsodic feel which almost sounds improvisational.
There is a significant snag in the recording of the Concerto, however, which is surprising coming from a Chandos production. The sound here is quite spoiled by the tenor sax being unnaturally closely mic'd. So much so, that its first entrance comes as a jolt, being thrust out in front of the orchestra and sounding larger-than-life and too loud. And the ear never really has a chance to adjust to this unnatural forwardness, as it lends an unappealingly raspy gruffness to the sax tone all through. I found it rather unpleasant, actually. It also tends to weigh down the performance with a heaviness and, again (there is no better word for it) gruffness to the music, robbing it of some of its musical expression.
The real surprise, however, is the Second Symphony. I did not know until reading the excellent booklet that Bennett, as a young composer, dabbled in Serialism. He is quoted as saying, "...the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality". Cast in a single movement (with 4 contrasting sections), it certainly has all the hallmarks of serialism, very little tonality and even less in the way of melodic direction. It sounds nothing like his other works contained on these first two volumes. And I didn't care for it in the slightest.
In sum, this second installment is a bit of mixed bag. I was happy to hear two more pieces from the same sonic soundworld of the first volume (which I love from beginning to end and have listened to more times than any other disc this year). The tenor sax Concerto is an interesting work, but is spoiled by microphone placement. And the Symphony is something I will never want to return to. But I still recommend this disc and am happy Chandos is exploring this composer further. I look forward to more volumes in the future.