Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Richard Rodney Bennett at 70 at the Barbican

Easy to like but hard to fall in love with

By Paul Gent
From the Telegraph - 11/04/2006

Though widely admired as a composer, Richard Rodney Bennett does not have the concert profile in this country of his contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies. Why is this?
One reason, ironically, could be his success outside the concert hall. The Mr Versatile of music has achieved fame for his film scores (three Oscar nominations), jazz piano and accompanying the likes of Marian Montgomery in cabaret.
Another reason might be his declining output - in the past 20 years, he has produced only a handful of major works. But is there another reason? This concert of his mainstream classical pieces, the most recent dating from 1987, gave us a chance to find out.
The initial response must be no. These are works that seduce the ear, the opposite of the crude stereotype of "plinky plonk music". The Symphony No 3, silkily played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, was warm, lush and lyrical. Bennett may have flirted with the avant-garde in his youth, but here he came across as the grandson of Vaughan Williams.
The second work in the programme, the horn concerto Actaeon, was similarly attractive. If it never lived up to the moodily mysterious promise of the opening adagio, that must have been at least partly due to the temptation inherent in all virtuoso works - and what a virtuoso the horn player David Pyatt showed himself to be - to put bravura display before depth.
Yet the overall impression was of a certain complacency; the music never seemed to strive for much beyond expertise. The two works in the second half did little to correct this impression, though the choral work Sea-Change, performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus under Stephen Jackson, did have one startling movement full of growls and shouts.
The final work, the 11-section orchestra work Anniversaries, made all the right noises, but rarely rose above the level of a dutiful, averagely agreeable late-20th-century work.
It was hard not to draw the conclusion from this concert that Bennett is a composer it is easy to like but hard to fall in love with. Perhaps, after all, it would have been fairer to include some of his more popular work - a blast of Murder on the Orient Express might have got the blood racing. It would certainly have sent us out of the hall humming.

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