Richard Rodney Bennett: Songs Before Sleep

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rodney Bennett
LABELS: NMC
WORKS: Songs before Sleep; A Garland for Marjory Fleming; A History of Thé Dansant; Dream-Songs; Tom O’Bedlam’s Song; this is the garden; Voyage; A Song at Evening
PERFORMER: Sophie Daneman (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Oliver Coates (cello), Iain Burnside (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: NMC D155

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Richard Rodney Bennett has always moved with refreshing freedom between the worlds of film, jazz and so-called serious music. These songs, though, stem strongly from the latter, even when, as in A History of the Thé Dansant, he creates a campy 1920s-ish idiom, well captured by the versatile Iain Burnside. 

Most have a more eerie, dreamlike ambiance. The title group gives nursery poems such as ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ and even ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ a dark uneasy sheen, echoed more gently in A Song at Evening, aka Now I lay me down to sleep. Dream-Songs, reflecting Walter de la Mare’s more adult moonlit imagery, are darker and eerier still. 

One disappointment is Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, written for Peter Pears with cello accompaniment. Bennett unfortunately responds to the poem’s cascade of lunatic chivalry with something like mannered Britten pastiche, all jagged moaning phrases and high-pitched hooting. Benjamin Hulett, with Oliver Coates, sings with commendably Pearsian fervour, but at 13 lugubrious minutes it outstays its welcome.

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Not so Garland for Marjory Fleming, lyrical and sardonic, though that excellent soprano Sophie Daneman inclines to the former. Susan Bickley adds mezzo bite to Dream-Songs, while Roderick Williams infuses Songs before Sleep with just the right dark warmth. Michael Scott Rohan