Letters to Lindbergh
What people are saying
"a wonderful repertoie" Herald Scotland, March 2013
"The disc is well recorded and comes with all sung texts and a fine booklet note by Malcolm MacDonald. If the programme appeals, it is a winner." International Record Review, April 2013
National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls’ Choir
Christopher Bell, conductor
Philip Moore & Andrew West, piano
Release date:11th Mar 2013
Given the late composer’s extraordinarily wide and varied output, it ought not to have proved too difficult to compile a CD of his choral music, and the usual compliments concerning Bennett’s work apply here, as one might expect: fluency, professionalism, ‘attractiveness’, technical expertise and so on – these are genuine qualities which Bennett possessed in abundance – but what is missing is memorability, and a wholly distinctive voice. Too much of this music, undemanding to listen to though it be, relies heavily on examples from Britten’s works to stick in the mind. Superb performances and quality recording add to the attraction – but does all of this music truly deserve the permanence of a recording?
Musical Opinion, Robert Matthew-Walker
This CD was prepared for issue before the death of the composer earlier this year – the booklet refers to him in the present tense – but it makes a fitting tribute to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Despite his period of study in the 1950s with Boulez and Messiaen he also retained a foot in the fields of jazz and popular music. Even the earliest work on this disc, The Aviary written at the same time he was producing twelve-tone scores for the professional stage, has a distinctly melodic feel in music and was written for amateurs to perform – and to find pleasure in performing.
Indeed the vocal performances here are all given by an amateur choir of 67 singers aged between twelve and sixteen, and they sound as though they are enjoying themselves thoroughly. Given Bennett’s long-term residence in America during his later years, one might suspect that the NY is an abbreviation for ‘New York’ – but no, the initials stand for ‘National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls Choir’. This tautologically named group don’t explain this title anywhere in the booklet, but otherwise the notes by Malcolm MacDonald are a mine of information about the works and include complete texts, although the excellent diction of the choir is such that they are not always needed.
Mind you, the texts for Letters to Lindbergh, which give their title to the CD, are well worth reading in their own right, delightfully flippant epistles from various sources addressed to the American aviator during his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic. Captain Scott (of the Antarctic) worries about the whereabouts of his stray cat called Penguin, who has become convinced that he is a bird after reading an encyclopaedia article. The Titanic wants Lindbergh to collect a load of shopping in Paris to make its life on the seabed more comfortable. Pluto – the Disney dog, not the erstwhile planet – is simply worried about his relationships with ‘Mickey’ and ‘Uncle Walt’. Bennett sets all this delightful nonsense in a bluff straightforward style, not always mirroring the words in detail but giving the singers plenty of meat to get their young teeth into. The bouncy accompaniment for piano duet provides a jazzy counterpoint that has all the exuberance of Gershwin or Cole Porter.
By contrast the Ballad of Sweet William is a setting of an eerie Scottish ballad about ghostly apparitions. The tone of the music remains light-hearted nevertheless. The main influence here would appear to be Britten’s male voice Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, but Britten is more adept at ringing the musical changes to reflect the varied action of the text than Bennett is here. Some of the writing for the children’s voices indeed recalls Britten’s Spring Symphony.Once again the writing for piano duet – also mirroring the Britten Ballad of Little Musgrave – provides plenty of spice and incident.
The settings of Walter de la Mare’s Dream-Songs are for unison voices and piano solo. Although de la Mare was a popular poet with composers in the earlier part of the twentieth century and Herbert Howells and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs persistently returned to his work. This very popularity seems to have told against the writer is more recent times, and settings of his words are now comparatively rare. The poems in Dream-Songs are a gloomy and mysterious collection, with heavily symbolist overtones but Bennett seems to completely miss the point of the concluding Song of the Mad Prince with its egotistical refrain “That’s what I said” where the emphasis should surely be on the word “I” and not as here on “That”. Apart from that single quibble, these are beautiful settings – as is the other de la Mare poem here, the Song at Evening, which combines a number of bedtime nursery rhymes to marvellous effect. By the way the poet is misprinted as ‘Mere’ on p.14 of the booklet.
Bennett courts difficulties in his settings of Four American Carols, in particular seeking to find new melodies for such perennial favourites as I wonder as I wander and Away in a manger.His new tunes for these are nevertheless very personable, and the other two carols – which are spirituals rather than carols in the traditional sense – are highly enjoyable settings with plenty of jazzy swing. It is clear that Bennett found no difficulty in being approachable throughout his career – as indeed is proved by The Aviary, with its disparate settings of poets such as John Clare, Tennyson, Coleridge and Shelley. All this music is highly enjoyable to listen to.
To complete the CD we are offered a collection of popular children’s songs arranged for piano duet under the title Over the hills and far away. Here we are in Grainger territory, and the eight brief movements indeed recall the fresh-faced approach of the eccentric Australian. Only the setting of Upon Paul’s steeple brings a deeper note, with the ringing of the bells bringing us into the realm of Debussy’s sunken cathedral. The playing of Philip Moore and Andrew West is excellent throughout, although the booklet does not tell who is playing what in the works where only a single pianist is required.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this CD, which deserves to have every success not only with the families and friends of the choir. It is not deep music, but it has a freshness and lively response that is always a delight
Musicweb International, Paul Corfield Godfrey
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) was a versatile and prolific composer in a variety of genres. I would have pigeon-holed him as a jazz man but he is probably best known today for his work on Four Weddings And A Funeral. On this most pleasant disc we meet him in a playful mood with some pretty settings of an eclectic set of texts. The unifying factor is that all are for female voices and NYCoS National Girls Choir hits all the right notes under conductor Christopher Hill and come across as sweet without becoming sickly. In part this is down to the texts which are quirky, often humorous, and always sung so clearly that we did not once need to look at the CD booklet to check. The title piece was composed in 1982 as a cantata for high voices and piano duet. The poems by Martin Hall quote whimsically from letters supposed to have been sent to Charles Lindbergh after his first solo trans-Atlantic flight. His correspondents include Scott of the Antarctic, the rusting hulk of the Titanic and Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. It is a lot of fun and might interest choirs looking for a secular element for a concert. Indeed this is true of most of the content being choral but not church music – which is an observation and not a criticism. The exception are ‘Four American Carols’ from 2010 which give a blues / spiritual flavour (or should that be flavor?) to "A child of God", "I wonder as I wander", "Away in a manger", and "Rise up, shepherds, and follow". Any or all of these would make a welcome addition to any choir’s Christmas repertoire. The finale deserves a mention: "Over the Hills and Far Away" is a piano duet from 1990 played here by Philip Moore and Andrew West. It is a fresh and original take on some well-known folk tunes and nursery rhymes.
Cross Rhythms, Steve Whitehead
Choir & Organ, May 2013
Like his one-time mentor Benjamin Britten, Bennett showed a genuine aptitude for writing music for children, particularly vocal works. Christopher Bell and the NYCoS National Girls Choir offer a delightful and varied programme of this corner of Bennett’s output. In addition to the amusing Letters to Lindbergh, the disc includes The Ballad of Sweet William, The Aviary, Dream-Songs, A Song at Evening and Four American Carols. All receive idiomatic readings from the clean, incisive voices of this superb Scottish choir, and throughout one marvels at Bennett’s gift for distinctive yet always memorable melody. [This disc] can be warmly recommended.
Signum records have released a collection of songs by Richard Rodney Bennett – Letters to Lindbergh, The Aviary, Dream-Songs, A Song at Evening and Four American Carols – performed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls’ Choir. Many of the songs are great fun, showing Bennett at his most urbane, others, such as the atmospheric Dream Songs, reveal a profounder inspiration. They are all sung with gusto, if a little colourlessly, by the NYCoS. The programme is broken up by Over the Hills and Far Away, Bennetts imaginative arrangement of a series of famous folk and nursery tunes for piano duet.
Composition Today, Christian Morris
Produced before Bennett’s death, this forms a moving tribute to a masterly composer. The immediately attractive opener, Letters to Lindbergh, quirkily imagines correspondence the aviator might have received from, among others, Pluto (the cartoon dog!) and the Titanic. His gift for soaring, exciting and grateful vocal lines is shown time and time again, and this young Scottish group repay him in spades. Warmly recommended.
Classical Music Magazine, Guy Weatherall
Many years ago, in another life, I thought about mounting a production of Richard Rodney Bennett’s children’s opera All the King’s Men. The young people concerned would have loved it, but one of the reasons why, in the end, something else was chosen was the resolutely tonal musical language and deliberate catchiness of the melodies that made me suspect that the composer, despite the immense facility of the writing, was taking the easy option to please the children. Here now is that same composer, sadly no longer with us, in a programme of choral music similarly written for young performers. The demands on the singers vary, but the accompaniments, for piano or piano duet, generally require very accomplished players indeed.
The Aviary is a set of five short unison songs to poems about birds. The music is tonal melodious and accessible. Bennett’s setting of Shelley’s short poem The Widow Bird seems little more than routine, but he touchingly evokes some gentle sadness in the short
piano postlude to the setting of John Clare’s The Birds Lament.
Letters to Lindbergh was composed to a commission from Walthamstow Hall School in Sevenoaks and the choral writing is much more adventurous. It begins with a cod-dramatic overture for the pianists, violent and highly dissonant, which is followed by three songs to texts by Martin Hall in the form of letters written to Charles Lindbergh during his pioneering transatlantic flight of 1927. Lindbergh’s correspondents are surprising: Captain Scott, the Titanic and Pluto the Dog. Canine correspondence seems innocuous enough: Pluto is a bit jealous of Lindbergh, but wishes him well. Scott, on the other hand, hopes Lindbergh can help him find a missing cat. As for poor old Titanic, he sends a shopping list for Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris. ‘A new fountain-pen is an absolute must; / My letters of late have borne traces of rust.’ If you can cope with whimsy then this might well be for you; others, beware! Much of the text makes me feel uncomfortable, but maybe I m reading more into it than is actually there, about Scott, in particular. The music is immediately attractive but just as whimsical as the words and with plenty of pastiche – a gay waltz represents Gay Paree, for example. I don t really know what to make of it.
Much less perplexing is Dream-Songs, a set of four songs for unison voices to poems by Walter De La Mare. The gentlest touch of jazz in the third song, and the composer’s courage in deciding to end with the saddest of the four, are among the features that make this little work such a success. Bennett has found music that matches perfectly the character of this writer’s verses, so appealing to an earlier generation of young readers.
The Ballad of Sweet William is a setting of a sombre Scottish ballad telling the story of Margret, who, following a visit from her lover’s ghost, lies down and dies herself. Bennett’s setting is highly dramatic, with moments of searing intensity. It makes a striking contrast to the rest of the programme.
A Song at Evening and Four American Carols are recent works. The former, a setting of the words beginning ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John I Bless the bed that I lie on’, lovely though it is, revives the doubts I had about All the King’s Men. But then the skill and charm of the American settings cast their spell and those doubts are, at least for the duration of the piece, dispersed.
There is no way of knowing which of the two pianists is playing when the choral works are accompanied by a single piano. Whoever it is, the accompaniments are expertly dispatched, and when four hands are required the word ‘virtuoso’ can veritably be employed. The pianists come into their own at the end of the disc, with Over the Hills and Far Away, eight short arrangements for piano duet of traditional tunes and nursery rhymes that demonstrate the composer’s skill, delicacy and affection for the material. Those words can also be applied to the performances throughout the disc, where you will hear some wonderfully open-throated singing, uninhibited and joyful, with superb diction and tuning, and most sensitive control of dynamics. The disc is well recorded and comes with all sung texts and a fine booklet note by Malcolm MacDonald. If the programme appeals, it is a winner.
International Record Review, William Hedley
Recorded in Glasgow last spring, shortly after the young women of the newest of the national ensembles under the National Youth Choir of Scotland umbrella performed the music in Glasgow’s City Halls, this disc of music by Richard Rodney Bennett became the last recording of his choral works when the composer died on Christmas Eve.
It’s a bit of a shame then that the record label did not revise the sleeve notes to record this when its release was delayed by three months.
It is also true that the recording, in the Henry Wood Hall, does not show off the beauty, tonal precision and impeccable diction of the voices of these 12 to 16-year-olds to best advantage. Somewhat closer miking and perhaps more interventionist mixing would have benefitted both the singing and the superb piano playing of Philip Moore and Andrew West, brought in to the project to make the most of the demanding writing for the keyboards.
That said, this is a wonderful repertoire with RRB’s settings of the whimsical poetry of Martin Hall understandably leading a disc that also includes the four Dream-Songs premiered in Glasgow during its year as European City of Culture in 1990.
Herald Scotland, Keith Bruce
- Letters to Lindbergh: Prelude – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.13
- Letters to Lindbergh: The Letter from Scott of the Antarctic – Richard Rodney Bennett – 5.04
- Letters to Lindbergh: The Letter from the Titanic – Richard Rodney Bennett – 4.21
- Letters to Lindbergh: The Letter from Pluto – Richard Rodney Bennett – 3.01
- The Ballad of Sweet William – Richard Rodney Bennett – 7.42
- The Aviary: The Bird’s Lament – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.04
- The Aviary: The Owl – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.08
- The Aviary: The Early Nightingale – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.17
- The Aviary: The Widow Bird – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.42
- The Aviary: The Lark – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.09
- Dream-Songs: The Song of the Wanderer – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.11
- Dream-Songs: The Song of the Shadows – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.37
- Dream-Songs: Dream-Song – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.03
- Dream-Songs: The Song of the Mad Prince – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.12
- A Song at Evening – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.58
- Four American Carols: A Child of God – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.45
- Four American Carols: I wonder as I wander – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.31
- Four American Carols: Away in a manger – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.11
- Four American Carols: Rise up, shepherd, and follow – Richard Rodney Bennett – 2.18
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Bobby Shafto – Richard Rodney Bennett – 0.46
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Polly Put the Kettle On – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.40
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Rockabye Baby – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.30
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Pop Goes the Weasel – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.00
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Oh Dear, What Can the Matter be? – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.27
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Upon Paul?s Steeple – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.02
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Golden Slumbers – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.52
- Over the Hills and Far Away: Over the Hills and Far Away – Richard Rodney Bennett – 1.10