Richard Rodney Bennett; Impromptus

Difficulty: A

This is a fantastic little set of pieces, very modern but with an incredibly expressive and often romantic feel. They form one of the many works that Julian Bream commissioned for the guitar from mainstream, twentieth century composers, so expanding the repertoire and giving us fantastic opportunities as guitarists to widen out musical knowledge and technical skill.

These pieces are small in stature and huge in content, requiring the guitarist to go beyond the ‘norm’, and possibly also beyond their comfort zone and range of experience, but in a ‘friendly’ way, exploring different sounds and colours, shaping intervals and long melodic lines, and experimenting with dissonant harmonies and subtle mood changes.

The use of the guitar is just brilliant, treating it like a ‘micro’ orchestra and the player like a true conductor.

There are big contrasts between the movements with very different moods created through the use of phrasing, articulation harmony and beautiful melodic intervals that really make you think and listen in new ways.

Number one is marked ‘recit’ and requires a good understanding of the overall shape to maintain the movement and direction of the music, in other words lots of listening! It opens with a fantastic rising phrase, emotionally shaped by the intervals used over three octaves to a pure, high E and then tailing off with a soft but intense dissonance. This wonderful use of melodic interval and harmonic dissonance is the theme of the movement giving the music a feel of constant motion but with loads of space and sustain. There is a huge dynamic range with strong, harsh accents leading to quiet and delicate dissonance creating a strong emotional pull. In essence it is a simple single melodic line with fantastic rise and fall in pitch and feeling and possibly one of the best final chords I have ever played!

Number two is marked ‘agitato’ and has an angry, driving opening with rhythm and dissonance being the key to the emotion. The pulse is a very strong 3 in a bar with occasional upset and uncertainty caused by a rhythm of 4 against this. In contrast the middle section has a soaring and passionate melodic line which has a much freer feel to it before the opening section returns using very fast repeated semiquavers to enhance and drive the music further. The agitation culminates with a sforzando B harmonic to finish – nothing held back!

Number three is full of the most exquisite harmonies enhanced by the 6th string tuning to E flat. Shifting rhythms and wide dynamics create a dark atmosphere with melodies rising and falling, building tension from within the brooding bass resonance. There is so much space and texture in this movement requiring excellent control of RH technique for tone, colour and articulation.

The contrast as you move into number four is sudden and stark with hurried, urgent and agitated passages of pizzicato notes punctuated by strident, rhythmical and dissonant chords creating a fantastic build up of tension and sound. Again the contrast within the movement is provided by two forceful and passionate melodies, very wide in range of pitch and finishing with a fantastically strong sff dissonant chord. The agitated pizzicato then returns building to a huge fff climax. The movement is marked Con fuoco and really gives the player to let rip and experience the raw emotion of the music.

This bombardment of sound and tension is very suddenly released in number five. Marked Arioso this is a beautiful and simply melody accompanied by an ostinato figure and gently rising and falling. The overall emotion is melancholy, becoming fuller and more emotional as the melody rises and then returning to its beginnings. The final crescendo leads up to some forte chords but, unlike the previous movements these are rich and sonorous, leaving behind the fire, unrest and passion. The music falls from this point with a wonderful, rich and rhythmical melody of dotted notes, triplets and semiquavers into the lowest register and then pauses, suspended on a low B flat before a return of the first theme from number one, molto tranquillo and dying away to nothing. This work is really made up of miniatures but hopefully you can see from this review that they are packed full of interest, technically of course but more importantly musically.

I love a chance to create an orchestra of sound and texture on my guitar and to see how sound creates emotion. With this piece you can really experiment. Yes there are some difficult techniques although the writing always makes the most of the guitar’s natural abilities. Once you have the control the world is your oyster.

Selina.

B = beginner. Grades 1-3 or roughly 1-3 years playing. I = intermediate. Grades 4-6 or roughly 4-5 years playing. A = advanced. Grade 7 and above, 6 years or more experience.