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My Dancing Day
Choral Music by Richard Rodney BennettBBC Singers
Richard Rodney Bennett
As one of Britain’s most respected and versatile musicians, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has produced over two hundred works for the concert hall, and fifty scores for film and television, as well as having been a writer and performer of jazz songs for over fifty years.
This disc of compositions and arrangements performed by the BBC Singers showcases some of his most popular and beguiling works for choir and voice, drawn from classical and jazz music and featuring his ever-popular work A Good-Night.
What people are saying
" ... there's not a note out of place or a phrase that seems second-hand." The Guardian
"... this CD offers an excellent overview of Bennett’s a cappella choral works, demonstrating the breadth of this compositional interests and versatility across a wide range of genres from contemporary classical to jazz to Christmas music." Studio Flamingo
"With the Singers' impeccable intonation, warm vocal blend, this CD is a must-buy for anyone interested in contemporary British choral music." Choir & Organ
Release date: 2nd Jul 2012
Order code: SIGCD293
|1.||My dancing day||Richard Rodney Bennett||5.33|
|2.||Gloria, Gloria||Richard Rodney Bennett||3.28|
|3.||In the bleak midwinter||Richard Rodney Bennett||3.41|
|4.||New Year Carol||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.38|
|5.||Town and Country: i. The Sun has long been set||Richard Rodney Bennett||1.55|
|6.||Town and Country: ii. Town and Country||Richard Rodney Bennett||5.09|
|7.||Serenades: Mistress Margaret||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.19|
|8.||Serenades: Mistress Margery||Richard Rodney Bennett||1.55|
|9.||Serenades: Mistress Anne||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.04|
|10.||Serenades: My Darling Dear||Richard Rodney Bennett||5.02|
|11.||Serenades: Mistress Isabel||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.27|
|12.||The Apple Tree||Richard Rodney Bennett||3.03|
|13.||Four poems of Thomas Campion: Winter Nights||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.44|
|14.||Four poems of Thomas Campion: Never Weather-beaten Saile||Richard Rodney Bennett||3.53|
|15.||Four poems of Thomas Campion: Fire, fire!||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.31|
|16.||Four poems of Thomas Campion: The Hours of Sleepy Night||Richard Rodney Bennett||3.32|
|17.||A Good-Night||Richard Rodney Bennett||2.49|
|18.||By Strauss||George Gershwin, arr. RRB||2.52|
|19.||Sophisticated lady||Duke Ellington, arr. RRB||3.51|
|20.||Every time we say goodbye||Cole Porter, arr. RRB||3.11|
This disc of choral works by Richard Rodney Bennett opens with the eponymous My Dancing Day,a move that I found rather brave bearing in mind the well-loved version by John Gardner and Holst’s beautiful part-song, both setting the same text. My feeling was that Bennett’s version failed to stand up to this stiff competition, despite being an interesting and well-composed rendition, with lyrical episodes interspersed with jazzier elements, and the use of a fuller text than we find in Gardner.
This is followed shortly by another version of a classic - In the bleak midwinter. Despite the Holst’s much-loved setting hovering in the background, Bennett here provides a successful and highly atmospheric work, with the effective word-painting on the word “moan” drawing my attention in particular.
Having opened with four ostensibly Christmas works, the fact that the rest of the disc contains works that do not seem to be particularly associated with the festive seasons struck me as a little odd. This is with the exception of The Apple Tree, another impressively characterful and efficacious work, yet stuck in the middle of the disc, separated from other Christmas works. This, however, was mitigated by the realisation that these Christmas works are not “carols” in the sense that a carol-singer might recognise, nor are they, in fact, especially redolent of any aspect of Christmas. They work in this programme just as choral works setting texts that are related to the birth of Christ.
In fact, the most Christmassy works here seems to me to be the New Year Carol, which I find deeply reminiscent of the tune Britten used in Friday Afternoons, but is nonetheless beautiful for that.
Town and Country opens with an appropriately pastoral setting of words from Wordsworth’s 1807 poem The Sun has long been set, which is juxtaposed with an upbeat, lively and modern setting of Charles Morris’s The Contrast, consequently extolling the virtues of city life over country life.
There then follows another very effective setting of poems by the English poet, John Skelton (c.1460-1529) in Serenades, a five-movement choral suite. It’s one of the main works on the disc. The contrasts between the lyrical and the playful are successfully conveyed.
A variety of arrangements conclude the disc, including Gershwin’s By Strauss, Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady and Porter’s Every time we say goodbye, which I found increased my feeling that this disc is something of an odd medley. Nevertheless, it does contain some good works and the performances from the BBC Singers are of the very highest standard throughout, with robust singing, good intonation and enunciation and superb communication.
Musicweb International, Em Marshall-Luck
Sometimes experience really counts: all four of the carol settings which launch this Richard Rodney Bennett anthology were written in the past five years, and evince an easy mastery that makes them a delight to listen to. The part-writing is endlessly resourceful and inventive, without ever drawing attention to its own cleverness, and the word-setting is pointed; the late Bennett's ear for a melody had in no way deserted him in his eighth decade.
Serenades, five settings of the eccentric verse ofJohn Skelton, is another recent work, and here it's 'My Darling Dear' that stands out. Bennett focuses on the darker elements in this tale of cuckoldry and deception, quietly probing the more uncomfortable emotional implications of Skelton's playfully ribald narrative. The more reflective side of Bennett's writing surfaces again in the gently pulsing ruminations of Never Weather-beaten Saile, from Four Poems of Thomas Campion, and the tenderly moving A Good-Night, memorialising Bennett's friend Linda McCartney.
A cappella arrangements of songs by Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter serve as encores, allowing the BBC Singers to swing in slightly freer style together. Their high standards of execution, under Paul Brough's empathetic direction, grace the entire programme.
Performance • Recording
BBC Music Magazine, Terry Blain
Richard Rodney Bennett, who died on Christmas Eve at the age of 76, had two extraordinary talents: he was blessed with a gift for melody and a mind for the most abstruse musical complexity. The first he indulged in some 200 works and 50 film scores, including the indelible waltz from Murder on the Orient Express. The second, developed in his studies with Pierre Boulez, liberated him to experiment with unconventional harmonies.
This BBC Singers recital of vocal music, much of it written in the last five years of his life, shows off both talents. The starting point is English hymnody, drawn from his Kentish boyhood (his mother was a pupil of Gustav Holst) and early churchgoing. The title song is a Cornish carol, medieval in origin. Many of the texts are Tudor. The love of words, of crisp final consonants, shines through the four-part harmonies. Although Bennett migrated in mid-life to New York, his native accent never wavered. Singing doesn’t get more English than this.
Three bonus tracks reflect yet another aspect of his versatile personality. Bennett loved nothing more than to sit at the piano and croon Broadway tunes. Three settings that he made of hits by Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter – By Strauss, Sophisticated Lady and Every Time We Say Goodbye – contrive both to celebrate and to send up the all-American art of hit-writing. The BBC Singers somehow keep a straight face and a very strict ensemble through these numbers. So much to enjoy. So much to miss with the passing of this lovely musician.
Sinfini Music, Norman Lebrecht
This is, I believe, the second disc devoted to the choral music of Richard Rodney Bennett. Reviewing the earlier release, an excellent recital by John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers, Christopher Thomas lamented that not much of Bennett's large and wide-ranging output had been recorded. That was in 2005 and so far as I'm aware not a great deal has changed since then. That makes this new release from Paul Brough and the BBC Singers all the more welcome. Another admirable feature of this disc is that collectors who already own the Rutter disc can invest in this one sure in the knowledge that there is only one piece, A Good-Night, that is duplicated. Indeed, most of the pieces on this Signum release were composed after Rutter made his recordings in 2004.
The present compilation confirms the impression I got from the earlier disc, namely that Bennett is a composer who writes splendidly for a cappella choir. He is discerning in his choice of texts. The music itself is sophisticated, accessible and seems beautifully conceived for voices. His textures are often rich but the music is always clear. Without exception the music that Paul Brough has chosen is full of interest.
There are five Christmas pieces on the programme – Rutter includes another seven – and all are most appealing. Bennett's setting of My dancing day is by no means overshadowed by Holst's superb response to the same text. Nor is his gently intense version of In the bleak midwinter put in the shade either by Harold Darke or, still less, by Holst's much more mundane tune. The Apple Tree has the same words that Elizabeth Poston set as Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree. It's not Miss Poston's fault that her setting has been done to death over the years; perhaps some enterprising choirs might care to think twice before singing it and give Bennett's lovely setting an airing instead. You might expect that a piece entitled Gloria, Gloria would be extrovert and joyful but the reality is that Bennett's piece is a bit more thoughtful and varied than that, though it does contain some celebratory moments.
Moving away from Christmas, Town and Country is a work in two movements, the most substantial of which is a setting of words by Charles Morris (1745-1838), from which the work takes its title. The subject matter is unusual and I enjoyed the Morris setting in particular – the other has words by Wordsworth – on account of the extrovert, good-natured music and the expert writing for voices.
Serenades comprises five poems by John Skelton (1460-1529). Of these I admired particularly the gently lyrical 'Mistress Margery', which is for female voices only, and the beautiful, sophisticated 'My Darling Dear'. Four poems of Thomas Campion is described by Malcolm MacDonald, in his first-rate notes, as "akin to a tiny vocal symphony or sonata". I admired greatly the second piece – the slow movement, as it were – which is an outstanding setting of 'Never Weather-beaten Saile', a poem that was also set memorably by Parry as one of his Songs of Farewell. That's followed by 'Fire, fire!', an exciting movement which could be thought of as the scherzo. The music is exciting but I enjoyed the performance of it rather less for reasons I'll come to in a moment. The set concludes with a lyrically expressive movement, 'The Hours of Sleepy Night', which is another very fine composition.
Bennett's taste and musical range has always been extensive and he has long been associated with cabaret so it's fitting that the programme ends with three of his arrangements of songs by Gershwin, Ellington and Porter. These are all expertly crafted, sophisticated and constitute genuine homages to the originals; they are, in short, classy. The arrangement of Sophisticated lady is particularly elegant, however I feel that the BBC Singers rather overpower By Strauss.
That brings me to the reservation at which I hinted when discussing the Campion settings. The singing on this disc is technically superb. The BBC Singers give virtuoso performances and in most respects it's hard to imagine Bennett's music being better served. Except ... To my ears this ensemble has a vibrato-heavy sound which has been a feature of their singing for years. This is particularly noticeable when the group is singing loudly; at such times the sound can be overwhelming and even rather fierce – the aforementioned 'Fire, fire!' is but one of many examples. Just to test the point I played a bit of the Bennett disc by The Cambridge Singers. What a difference! John Rutter's choir produces a much cleaner, lighter sound which is much more pleasing – indeed, to be frank, less wearing – to listen to. It's interesting to note that Rutter's choir is pretty much identical in size (10/6/6/6) to the BBC Singers (8/6/6/6). So we're not comparing a large choir with a smaller one; it's a question of singing style. However, this is a matter of personal taste and other listeners may not be troubled by it. It's important to state that the performances are utterly assured and proficient.
In his notes Malcolm MacDonald uses a wonderful phrase in talking about the music that Richard Rodney Bennett has composed over the last couple of decades. He suggests that "his works seem very much like fruitful new plots added to the soil already so richly filled by Parry, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Warlock, Britten, Harris and others." That's a splendidly apposite remark. If you like English choral music then you should buy this stimulating disc and experience some of Bennett's "fruitful new plots" for yourself.
Musicweb International, John Quinn
With the Singers' impeccable intonation and warm vocal blend, this CD is a must-buy for anyone interested in contemporary British choral music.
Choir & Organ, Maggie Hamilton
Richard Rodney Bennett’s long career has made him an impossible figure to pigeonhole. Born in 1936, Bennett’s teachers included Lennox Berkley, Boulez and Messiaen – his interest in the avant-garde coexisting with a burgeoning career scoring films and work as a jazz pianist. Murder on the Orient Express is probably his best-known film score, though aficionados will always favour the swirling piano theme heard at the start of Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (see below). Signum’s choral anthology is glorious. This is wonderful music – Bennett’s style cleverly alluding to the English choral tradition but always distinctive. Typical is The Apple Tree, a brief carol which packs an astonishing amount of harmonic incident into a three-minute span.
Four more Christmas numbers are almost as good, the additive rhythms of My Dancing Day recalling Tippett. 2007’s Four Poems of Thomas Campion is a compact, virtuosic choral symphony a model of effective word-setting. A tiny tribute to Linda McCartney doesn’t sound saccharine, and the disc ends unexpectedly with stunning a capella arrangements of songs by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Gershwin. Classy performances from the BBC Singers under Paul Brough.
The Arts Desk, Graham Rickson
September 2012, Star Review, Choir & Organ
This recording of a highly attractive selection of Bennett's recent a cappella choral works and arrangements is as accomplished as one could possibly hope for from the ever-reliable BBC Singers under Paul Brough, their principal guest conductor. The opening sequence of four Christmas carols provides a perfect example of Bennett's refreshing musical language and supreme craftsmanship, and he is undaunted by tackling poems familiar to us from settings by other composers. The disc includes Serenades, written for the BBC Singers and which sets poems by John Skelton, and Four Poems of Thomas Campion, both dating from 2007. With the Singers' impeccable intonation, warm vocal blend, this CD is a must-buy for anyone interested in contemporary British choral music. Brough and the BBC Singers are also delightful in Bennett's loving arrangements of Gershwin, Ellington and Cole Porter.
Choir & Organ Magazine Philip Reed
Surely no British composer has packed more into their career over the last 50 years than Richard Rodney Bennett. From being regarded as a member of the British avant garde in the late 1950s, through his performances as a jazz pianist and accompanist, to composing operas for Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden and scores for high-profile British and American movies, Bennett has commuted effortlessly between styles. These unaccompanied choral works, immaculately presented by the BBC Singers conducted by Paul Brough, includes pieces from the last 13 years of that career. They range from Serenades (a five-movement suite on poems by John Skelton that Bennett composed for the BBC Singers in 2007) and the Four Poems ofThomas Campion (introduced at the Proms the same year) to exquisite carols such as In the Bleak Midwinter. Each shows the same craftsmanship and harmonic instincts; there's not a note out of place or a phrase that seems second-hand.
The Guardian, Andrew Clements
As one of Britain's most respected and versatile musicians, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has produced over 200 works for the concert hall and 50 scores for film and television, as well as having been a writer and performer of jazz songs for many years. This disc of compositions and arrangements performed by the BBC Singers under Paul Brough showcases some of his most popular and beguiling works for choir and voice, several of which will be of interest to readers of this website. The title track is probably RRB's best known Christian composition and there are several other pieces along similar lines, such as "The Apple Tree" (sometimes known as "Jesus Christ The Apple Tree"). Bennett has a gift for finding and setting interesting texts and although most on this disc are not explicitly Christian all are worth hearing and the singing, all a cappella, by The BBC Singers, is excellent. A highlight for this reviewer is Bennett's setting of "Four Poems Of Thomas Campion", an interesting figure who lived from 1567-1620 and who is probably best remembered for "Never Weather-Beaten Sail". Also included is "A Good-Night", a setting of prose by the 17th-century writer Frances Quaries that was Sir Richard's contribution to 'A Garland For Linda', a tribute in memory of Linda McCartney. The closing sequence is particularly interesting, being arrangements of the Gershwin brothers' witty "By Straus", Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and Cole Porter's moving "Every Time We Say Goodbye". It may seem like a back-handed compliment to pick arrangements of other composers' work as my standout pieces, but these three are absolute masters of the popular song and when I say that Bennett's arrangements improve upon the originals, in particular turning Porter's ode to lost love into something close to a hymn, I hope you see what I mean. This is a good introduction to an interesting contemporary composer, a fine showcase for a top choir but, perhaps, the content is less compelling for those looking for Christian choral music.
8 out of 10
CrossRhythms.com, Steven Whitehead
The latest release from the excellent BBC Singers on the Signum Classics label focuses on unaccompanied choral music by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. My Dancing Day features 20 songs, most of which are original works composed between 1999 and 2010. With a mix of Christmas music, classical songs and three jazzy numbers at the end, the challenge is where to file this in the record collection!
Directed by Principal Guest Conductor Paul Brough, the BBC Singers are in great voice, their trademark bright sound, perfect tuning and clear diction present throughout. The ensemble of 24 voices runs the full dynamic range from whispered pianissimo to vibrant forte, and from a rounded sound to a more edgy tone, conveying effectively the wide range of moods and feelings expressed in the poems.
All five Christmas songs here are settings of texts that exist in more familiar versions by composers such as Holst and Britten, and were composed were between 2008 and 2010, although Christmas music has been an ongoing theme throughout the composer’s long and successful career. Bennett’s take on the carol In the bleak midwinter is effective and offers an alternative to the well known versions by Harold Darke and Holst.
Town and Country juxtaposes two different views, a long movement contrasting rural and urban life according to Charles Morris and coming down in favour of the latter, prefaced by Wordsworth’s preference for the countryside expressed in The Sun Has Long Been Set. Serenades is a setting of poems by John Skelton, exploring the different characters of four named women, together with a setting of My Darling Dear, gentle as a caress.
The Four poems of Thomas Campion, a BBC Proms commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus in 2007, is an atmospheric work, its four movements following a similar pattern to a classical symphony. Here the blended voices of the BBC Singers produce a different sound each movement to match the mood of the poetry, from joyful to mellow; strident and searing to warm and wistful.
A Good-Night is perhaps the most familiar work here, having been composed as a tribute to Linda McCartney. It is gentle and pure with a taste of Eric Whitacre, and receives a sympathetic account by the BBC Singers. Three arrangements of popular songs round off the disk; By Strauss, a Gershwin waltz, Sophisticated Lady by Duke Ellington and Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye.
Released the year after the composer celebrated his 75th birthday, this CD offers an excellent overview of Bennett’s a cappella choral works, demonstrating the breadth of this compositional interests and versatility across a wide range of genres from contemporary classical to jazz to Christmas music. It also shows his deep knowledge of, and passion for, the English poets whose writing he so sensitively sets.
This would be a good addition to the CD collection for anyone with an interest in choral and vocal music or contemporary British music in general, as well as fans of the composer or performers. It would also be of interest to poetry and literature enthusiasts. If this appeals, there are similar releases by the BBC Singers on the same label featuring the choral music of Tippett and Judith Bingham under their Conductor Laureate Stephen Cleobury and Chief Conductor David Hill respectively.
Studio Flamingo blog