Review: Sir Richard Rodney Bennett 75th Birthday


Claire Martin, Richard Rodney Bennett, Watts/ Skelton/Hitchcock, Nash Ensemble cond. John Wilson
(Wigmore Hall, March 23rd 2011, Photo Credit: Schirmer & Co)


"He looks in pretty good shape for ninety-six, doesn't he," joked Claire Martin. This concert, in honour of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's seventy-fifth birthday next Tuesday, consisted of a mini-set of four songs and - eventually - two charming and happy encores for their regular duo, plus seven off Bennett's arrangements for voice chamber ensemble, from about forty years ago, originally commissioned by Amelia Freedman for the Nash Ensemble, and specially reduced for tonight's smaller forces, deftly conducted by John Wilson.

Richard Rodney Bennett has a very special way of making different elements co-exist peacably in music. In the first duo set he even set up a civilized context for two songs to talk amicably and collaboratively to each other. It seemed to symbolize the evening. With Bennett's gentle persuasion, Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," and Jimmy Van Heusen's "I thought About You" seemed to get along together very well. Double-songs don't normally work as well as this.

In "I don't want to rock and Roll" by the prolific composer Maury Yeston, Bennett zipped through a history of music with composers' names cleverly rhymed - "Pergolesi" and "driving me crazy" just one of a torrent - and then inserted a coda which embraced just about every single rival faction of the British classical contemporary music scene- except for Turnage: there are some names for which not even Richard Rodney Bennett can find a sentient rhyme.

Rhyming, peacable co-existence, it seems to fit into a pattern. The best examples (I’m enjoying this theme) came in the beautifully varied arrangements. Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" was perhaps the most remarkable. Here a strict metric three-four with lush harmonies showcasing the skills of the Nash players co-existed a hard-swung swung three-four from the jazz players, with Bennett at the centre of things.

In the final arrangement, Rodgers' "It might has well be Spring," Bennett freed himself up to spin delicious jazz countermelodies while simultaneously seeming to unravel the slow movement of Ravel’s G major piano concerto in the upper reaches of the piano.

Matt Skelton is perhaps uniquely capable of bringing a drum kit sound down to the point where nobody could possibly question its rightness and suitability in the Wigmore Hall. Nigel Hitchcock’s jazz solos were massively impressive – zipping through the changes in “Love for Sale” for example - and so were his feats of blending, timbre and accuracy – right there in the ensemble of the top chamber music players in Britain he seemed nothing less than a full member of the Nash ensemble.

Claire Martin, both in the duo setting and in front of the chamber group made each song, each moment come to life. "My Ship," at the tempo of a gentle barcarolle over Steve Watts' Ron Carter-ish boss bass playing was a delight. "It Never Entered My Mind" found Martin exploring a sonorous lower register with Karin Krog-like warmth. More please. "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam'," the final encore, caught exactly the right note of celebration to bring proceedings to a close.

Bennett said that the arrrangements had originally been commissioned for Eartha Kitt. (LondonJazz tangent alert.) That had me reaching back into a comforting past for the Monty Python spoof of Eartha Kitt with her most famous sex-kittenish song "Old-Fashioned Millionaire."

I found myself drawn in by one line from the Monty Python Eartha Kitt spoof, which speaks with clarity of the musical values and virtues which Sir Richard Rodney Bennett has lived and demonstrated ever since his Quaker schooling in the immediate afermath of the Second World War. (It was the perfect antidote to Budget Day, with a procession of our politicians treating us to the unconstructive spectacle of blaming and tribally loathing each other, egged on by the willing media. Meuh).

"I don't want a state founded on hatred and division."

Amen to that, and A Very Happy Seventy-Fifth, Sir Richard.

"Witchcraft" by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Claire Martin, reviewed HERE, is on Linn Records.

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