Lionel Bentley

Versatile violinist 'bowled over by the music'

Friday 16 May 2003 00:00 BST

Lionel Bentley, violinist: born London 17 February 1908; married 1984 Lyn Peregryn; died London 2 May 2003.

The violinist Lionel Bentley was an accomplished and versatile musician who was a soloist in both light and classical fields, a chamber musician, a teacher and later a conductor. During a career of nearly 70 years he worked with some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century.

Bentley was born in London, the son of a professional flautist who played with the London Symphony Orchestra. When he was five he spotted a toy violin in a shop and was provided with a "real" half-size on which he had tuition. He made good progress and at nine had lessons with Arthur Bagers, a cinema violinist who worked him so hard that within three years Bentley was already playing the virtuoso Paganini Caprices.

However, he took exception to one of his teacher's ideas, of holding the bowing arm down. Bentley said: "He made me hold a book under my arm, which was very uncomfortable, and even at that tender age I knew it was wrong." In 1934, when he went on to study with Sascha Lasserson, a pupil of the great Leopold Auer, Bentley soon replaced the old- fashioned bowing with the flowing flexibility that is the hallmark of the great Russian school. Later he also had lessons with Carl Flesch.

Bentley grew up in the 1920s, when many musicians' lives were affected by the Depression and his father had difficulty in getting enough work to feed his family. So at 17 Lionel took a job, at the King's Picture House in Chelsea, under his old teacher Arthur Bagers. "You had to be jolly quick to be able to play whatever suited the silent films, and it was a tremendous help with sight-reading," he said.

The following year he was taken on by the Lyons circuit, which provided orchestras for their Corner Houses. Aged 19, he began attending the Royal College of Music, continuing to work in the evenings and at weekends to pay his fees. During this time, Bentley was fortunate in getting a job in the Stoll Picture House Orchestra, working in what had originally been the London Opera House. When, however, he heard a BBC broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier from Covent Garden and his father was playing there with the LSO, Lionel Bentley decided to concentrate on serious music. He explained:

I was absolutely bowled over by the music! I could not believe my ears at the sounds that came from those musicians. I thought they were all magicians! Bruno Walter was conducting, with a star- studded cast – Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann and Maria Olczewska and other great names.

His sole ambition became to play in the LSO. Within the year he signed a contract and one of their first engagements was to play at Covent Garden for both the Italian and German seasons. He heard all the great singers of the day, including Beniamino Gigli, Rosa Ponselle and Frieda Leider. His enduring memory was when they played in Der Rosenkavalier with Bruno Walter and the same cast as that first broadcast. It was one of the most exciting periods of his young life.

That year, he played in the first ever Glyndebourne Opera Season and later joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra as sub-principal second violin. Several of these concerts were conducted by Toscanini, whom he described as "hair-raising".

During the Second World War Bentley served with the RAF Signals. After the war he returned to his job at the BBC, but within six months rejoined his old orchestra, the LSO, this time as co-leader. He was becoming more and more interested in chamber music and, while still holding down his orchestral job, he also played second violin in the Blech Quartet for 10 years; five with Harry Blech as leader and the remainder with Erich Gruenberg.

In 1955 he joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as leader under Sir Thomas Beecham. "He had a special way of making musicians play wonderfully well," he said,

by exercising his own brand of magic. He didn't like accompanying. He liked the limelight and resented a great artist dominating the stage. So he seldom put himself in that position.

Bentley added that "he could also be terribly rude".

It was while he was with the LPO that Bentley gave his début solo recital at the Wigmore Hall with the pianist Ernest Lush. He was 48 at the time, much older than was usual for a début, but excused himself as being "a late developer". None the less the critics approved, The Times writing of "fine technical accomplishment and admirable musicianship" in his playing of the unaccompanied Violin Sonata in G minor by Bach.

From 1956 until 1984 Bentley led his own Amici string quartet. In the 1958-59 season, they played all six Bartók quartets in a series of concerts at the Conway Hall – the first time in London that the same quartet had played all the Bartóks.

In addition to his quartet playing, Bentley led a number of orchestras including the Pro Arte, the Boyd Neel and the London Chamber Orchestra. He gave concerts with the London Horn Trio with John Burden and Celia Arieli and also played in the Haslemere Festival every summer for over 20 years. He gave up orchestral playing in 1964.

Bentley was a fine teacher and was for many years Professor of Violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He had been coaching the strings of the Kent Junior Music School since 1961 and the same year organised a chamber-music course at Missenden Abbey as an experimental weekend event. Further courses were held three times a year for more than 20 years.

I once asked Lionel Bentley if he had any golden rules for his pupils. He said that he placed great importance on bowing, which was much more important than left-hand technique. He also regarded perfect intonation as a vital part of good playing, but emphasised it is the sound that is of overall importance, and this can only be achieved by a good bowing arm.

In the mid-1980s he had health problems and was unable to continue his playing. Resourceful as ever, he took to conducting and found himself in demand training and conducting amateur choirs.

Margaret Campbell

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