Jamaican Rumba: Volume 1
Arthur Benjamin - the piano music
Ian Munro - piano
$23 (Australian dollars)
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|Recorded for the first time, here is a comprehensive overview of the piano music of Arthur Benjamin, an Australian composer who spent most of his time in Europe and whose music has been neglected for years. It is performed by Ian Munro, whose affinity for this music is astonishing. He has been a devotee of Benjamin for years, and the quality of his research is clearly revealed in the annotations he has provided with this release. |
Munro's biography of Benjamin is the only available analytical biography of this composer in the available literature. Also included with the CD is a charming introduction by Joan Trimble, a former student and colleague of Benjamin, and the pianist who premiered Jamaican Rumba! This music is accessible and virtuosic, and the children's pieces are thoroughly charming.
|Arthur Benjamin||Jamaican Rumba|
Chinoiserie (Gavotte and Musette)
Pastorale, Arioso & Finale
Three New Fantasies
Odds & Ends I
Odds & Ends II
Let's go Hiking
|Benjamin's piano writing has the elegance and sophistication of the French School, and his 1826 Suite… is distinctly Ravelian. with obvious debts to Le Tombeau de Couperin. The outer sections of the Pastorale, arioso and finale scintillate, and demand the utmost virtuosity, Ian Munro revels in the music's dashing bravura. Throughout he plays with great style and elegance and obvious affection. This is a wholly delightful recital with never a dull moment throughout its 78 minutes. And few CDs have more extensive notes about the music and also include a full composer biography. The recording is admirably natural.|
Penguin Record Guide
Arthur Benjamin's Jamaican Rumba was the result of a visit there in 1938 and it soon became a world hit. He did not repeat that success, yet his other genre pieces here are full of attractive ideas and catchy rhythmic invention, at times cool in the jazz sense of the word (Saxophone Blues), at others (the Odds and ends or the Fantasies, for instance) offering writing of charming simplicity. The performances here are first class; so is the recording
If I could organise a mini-festival of Australian piano music, what would it include? In addition to some of the contemporary names, Raymond Hanson would be essential and Margaret Sutherland, of course. Fritz Hart and Roy Agnew would be there, too; after the discoveries of lan Munro’s new CD (Jamaican Rumba: Tall Poppies, TPI05), I now realise that Arthur Benjamin’s presence would also be important.
Benjamin – to the extent that he is known at all in his native country – is remembered for that popular Rumba but his range was far wider and our neglect is certainly not justified. Even if I do not find all the music as convincing as Munro argues so eagerly (and thoroughly, I must say) in his essay in the slip-booklet, I have to acknowledge that it is agreeable; the work of an professional composer.
The paradox is that Benjamin – who was a fine pianist – seemed to have few profound thoughts for his own instrument. He was certainly capable of tougher musical expression as his first symphony made clear. In fact, I suspect that if Munro – whose playing is, at every point, transparent and articulate – were willing to look further below the technical polish, he (and we) would find more warmth and tension in the piano music.
The Pastoral, Arioso and Finale might then seem less like a quizzical look at world over a gin-and-tonic and more like the wartime piece that is was. Together with the Suite, it is the most substantial work in this anthology and the Australian Stuart & Sons piano is ideal (as is Munro’s pianism) for the English athleticism of that Suite. Spruce and supercilious is how I see much of the music with Munro’s approach: some tousling of the hair and apparel would surely help our enjoyment.
In much the same way that Sinding’s ‘fame’ is rooted in ‘The Rustle of Spring so Arthur Benjamin’s renown is founded on the ‘Jamaican Rumba’. In fact he was a composer of much broader accomplishment. There are several operas including the grandest of grand operas: A Tale of Two Cities written for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Other works of some moment and gravity are the hyper-romantic wartime Symphony with its Prokofiev resonances, a dark Viola Sonata (also extant as a Concerto) and a simply glorious Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra. The latter has been in the catalogues for many years in an RCA recording with Heifetz, Primrose, the RCA SO conducted by Izler Solomon. However one of these days (if the Gods smile!) some way will be found to release the version played to eager perfection by the de Pasquale brothers with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Ormandy.
Benjamin is fortunate having Ian Munro (who also provides the notes for this disc) as the first pianist to pursue his star with such dedication. Munro is an adaptable and sensitive pianist with reserves of technical skill always at the service of Benjamin’s art rather than his own aggrandisement. It seems a natural progression from this recording that he should move on to record the two works for piano and orchestra: Concerto Quasi Una Fantasia and the Piano Concertino. I have my fingers crossed.
However to the task in hand. Tall Poppies are a firm to be watched. With little publicity they have ploughed an individualist’s furrow and have reaped a rewarding harvest. They have teamed up with Ian Munro to produce a Benjamin series and it is to be hoped that this disc and the chamber music one will not be the final entries in the lists.
Benjamin was himself a pianist of considerable accomplishment. He left his native Australia to study in London there making friends with Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells amongst many others in the RCM Stanford milieu. His music can be thought of as related to the same school. Inevitably his Rumba is here and it is given a swanky performance. The Scherzino recalls Medtner and Rachmaninov and it is the latter whose voice is heard amid the stilly waters of the Siciliana. Chinoiserie is showy and rattles with off-key clangour taking in perspectives afforded by Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives and the gentler Stravinsky.
The Suite encompasses movements that ripple and rush head over heels, light of touch, Ravelian - just this side of a tranquil dream. There are even suggestions of Constant Lambert (he premiered Lambert’s Piano Concerto). All ends in lofty splendour.
These pieces are very varied in mood. Lightly Handelian (a touch of Grainger along the way), the quickstep tramp of Prokofiev, zestful, playful and in the final Fantasy of the New Fantasies a delicate portrait of water spouts romantically scented and developing a central song expansive amplitude. The Romance-Impromptu is a brief simple-seeming romantic song. A number of the pieces (Brumas Tunes and Let’s Go Hiking - a 1930s redolence if ever there was one) seem to be didactic but they never lack for life and experience of living. In the Haunted House we are treated to a ‘wrong note’ grotesque march and some moody ‘chimes at midnight’ Benjamin was, after all, a film composer. The second set of ‘Odds and Ends’ includes a sad Negro Song, a Baxian Legend and a breezily ebullient Baxian march. The CD ends with the Elegiac Mazurka - a sultry homage to Paderewski.
Perhaps you already pride yourself on having the Chandos collection of Howells’ piano music or the Moeran, Goossens or Bax piano music or the Ireland or Mayerl CDs. If so track down a copy of this disc. The idiom is similar without being a slavish facsimile.
Music Web International
Period pieces! The title of the release is "Jamaican Rumba", after the first of many small works it offers by the Australian-born Benjamin (1893-1960), who was a student of the somewhat irascible Charles Villiers Stanford ("Go home and learn about [Home Rule], and ye'll be a better composer!" "You Jews can't write long tunes!"). Benjamin nonetheless characterized Stanford as "without a shadow of a doubt, a great teacher" and stayed to make his career in England.
The works included here are not among his larger, "serious" works; they are all character pieces, and many of them rely on popular music for their idiom. The Rumba of the title is one such--reminding this listener of nothing so much as Milhaud's Boeuf sur le Toit and Scaramouche. And so the other styles parade by: clinking chinoiserie ('Chinoiserie', 1936), Jazz Age Gershwiniana ('Saxophone Blues', 1929), Spiritual ('A Negro Sings a Glad Song', 1924), Ravellian suite (Suite, 1927), English pastoral ('Quiet Garden', 1924). We in the present day are thus reminded that, for at least the first half of the 20th Century, "serious" composers wrote for musicians other than virtuoso professionals, and that the idioms reached out to a wide musical public. That the attractiveness of such music may have faded as the novelty value of these musical languages has worn off is to be neither denied nor regretted; light music does not readily evolve into Timeless Art, but it is a valid part of the musical life of its time none theless.
This recording offers an interesting snapshot of English musical taste between the world wars, then, but it is not likely that it will bear repeated listenings.
American Record Guide, Nov, 2000
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