"All grown up" is Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's surprising verdict on his Symphony No 3, which opened this 70th birthday party. He seems to mean that he no longer needed to show off, but the work, written in his fifties, is a turning point in more fundamental ways.
It puts his love of musical variation into the kind of evolving, dramatic context that makes symphonies tick. It reaches out toward, and at the end frankly accepts, a sense of tonality that not only he but most prominent composers of his generation had resisted up until then. And it relishes a new-found simple beauty of materials and composing skill that has served him well ever since.
The BBC's tribute focused instead on what he had written during the previous decade. Perversely, it ran in the opposite order to the music's potential cumulative impact, because the symphony is one of his most powerful pieces, yet its atmosphere was swept away by the time Anniversaries finished off the evening. That is a real show-off piece, a kind of concerto for orchestra, spotlighting smaller instrumental groupings in interludes between variations, swept up in a surge of vivid orchestration. The pace and brilliance kept everyone alert, but the substance was dry and brittle.
Between these lucid, vigorous performances, a further pair of finely achieved pieces showed him with, as it were, a foot in each camp: well-made music, most effective when letting its hair down. Actaeon, a one-movement horn concerto in all but name, wittily gave trom-bones the hunt-type figures while the horn skipped around them, integrating extended techniques into a fluent virtuoso line.
For the unaccompanied Sea-Change, the BBC Symphony Chorus and conductor Stephen Jackson took over in a strangely mixed idiom: two stunningly imaginative songs, two rather dull ones. The highlight was a no-holds-barred setting of Edmund Spenser; a passage from The Faerie Queene describing an array of gruesome underwater life such as David Attenborough never found. Exact in rhythm but free in pitch, the music gleefully babbled and roared and came at you like crashing waves - all the imagery you could ask.
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