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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 January 2012
Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) was an Australian composer who came to Britain to study at the RCM during its heyday under Parry and Stanford, and then decided to stay on. He is perhaps best known today for his popular light music such as Jamaican Rumba, but he was also a composer of serious music, including an impressive Symphony, and the Violin Concerto recorded here.

The Violin Concerto, written in 1931, is in the usual three-movement form. The first, Rhapsody, is full of musical invention and bravura passages for the soloist, beginning with a robust passage for soloist against a stamping, Stravinsky-like rhythm in the orchestra. The music then becomes more lyrical as the violin sings melodically, and perhaps slightly reminiscent of the Walton Viola Concerto which had appeared a couple of years earlier. The music builds in drive and force, at which point it can hardly be described as rhapsodic at all, but then subsides to a subdued ending.

In the second movement (Intermezzo) the lilting qualities of the solo instrument are much in evidence, while in the Rondo finale the tempo picks up to produce a brisk movement with plenty of rhythmic complexity - a kind of tour de force for the soloist.

The Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, dedicated to Arnold Bax and quoting from the older composer's "In the Faery Hills", was completed in 1936. The opening Baxian four-note horn call, in fact, serves as a leitmotif throughout. The relatively leisurely pace of the opening Nocturne gives way to a much more lively second movement, marked Scherzino, although there is a more graceful dance-like middle section. The extensive third movement, labelled Sonata-Finale, combines elements of both the preceding Nocturne and Scherzino, including the all-important leitmotif which gives the work such a strong sense of unity. The end comes with a spectral shimmer.

The Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (1943) is in effect a Viola Concerto - actually an orchestration of the Viola Sonata of the previous year. No doubt world events of the time ensured that this would be a fairly sombre piece, and the viola, with its naturally dark tones, was just the instrument to carry the mood. There is an undoubted brooding quality about the Elegy, while the Waltz, with its disturbing changes of tempo and acerbic harmonies, is a world away from the genteel Viennese fayre of the nineteenth century. This Waltz is a troubled, restless affair. The brief Toccata finale gives the violist every opportunity to display her technical brilliance, although the orchestra, too, is required to perform with considerable dexterity. The work concludes with an audience-pleasing flourish.

The soloists Lorraine McAslan (violin) and Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) make a splendid case for Benjamin's music, while the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons, provides full-bodied support.
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