Viols and Violas Cleverly Exploited at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Benjamin, Goehr: Fretwork, Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Antoine Tamestit (viola), George Benjamin (piano, conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.3.2013 (GDn)

Goehr: Three Sonnets and Two Fantasias (exerpts),
Shadow of Night (exerpts)
Sur terre, en l’air
Benjamin: Piano Figures
Viola, Viola
Upon Silence

George Benjamin is the toast of the town just now, with his Written on Skin, playing at Covent Garden, the most universally lauded new opera to hit the London stage since Britten. So the Wigmore Hall has made a savvy choice in programming a season of Benjamin’s music to run through the early months of 2013. This evening’s programme was a curious combination of works and performers, combing both Benjamin’s music with that of his former teacher, Alexander Goehr, and the talents of viol consort Fretwork with those of star violist Tabea Zimmermann. Viola and viols were never heard together, but the alternation of new and old strings had the effect of intensifying both the austere beauty of the viol sound and the plush roundness of the viola.

The first half was dominated by Goehr’s Three Sonnets and Two Fantasias, a work which, despite its scoring for viols and voice (Susan Bickley), and despite the Renaissance forms named in its title, takes an innovative approach to both the viol ensemble and Shakespeare, with only the vaguest hints at allusions to the music of the ancient past. Goehr fragments the consort, treating each player as a soloist and often reducing the texture to just one or two lines. His vocal writing seems to serve the instrumental invention rather than vice versa, so Bickley’s plain and direct tone suited the music well. Even so, the piece seemed more experimental than consummately crafted, especially when compared with Goehr’s other work for the same forces, Shadow of Night, excepts of which were heard in the second half. This later work takes a different approach to the ensemble, using tutti textures almost throughout and regularly engaging in imitative contrapuntal forms. Not that this sounds like pastiche either, but its more traditional use of the consort better exploits the instruments’ ability to sing out their individual lines, even when in complex combinations.

Benjamin’s contributions to the first half consisted of his Piano Figures, which he performed himself, and Viola, Viola, which has deservedly become one of his most performed works. Piano Figures, the programme assures us, is suitable for children, something that cannot be said of Written on Skin. Benjamin takes up the challenge of writing technically undemanding pieces for piano, while still exploring the all the tone colours and textures that he would habitually seek to draw from the instrument. The result is a little imbalanced, with the simplicity of the musical material at odds with the sophistication of the treatment to which it is subject. Messiaen’s piano works are a continual presence, and come to the fore when Benjamin explores the upper registers in soft filigree textures. Given that he has spent most of the last two weeks in the pit at Royal Opera, he can be forgiven for not having kept up with his piano practice, and there were a few hesitations where the momentum was lost. He was also surprisingly firm in his touch, never trying to make his overtone textures sound more nebulous than their voicings allow. The same was true of Viola, Viola, performed by violists Tabea Zimmermann and Antoine Tamestit. The piece was written for the opening of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, and Benjamin’s aim was to cast the violas against type, setting aside the instruments’ demure persona and instead asking them to fill this large hall with their tone. The bright, resonant acoustic of the Wigmore Hall proved another ideal sounding space for this brash and ostentatious work, although Zimmermann and Tamestit also ensured that Benjamin’s many subtle touches were also given their due.

The final Goehr work on the programme was Sur Terre, en l’air, for viola and piano, performed here by Zimmermann and Benjamin. The piece was written for Zimmermann but was also intended as a homage to Messiaen, with whom both Goehr and Benjamin studied. The music is generally direct and melodic, at least by Goehr’s standards, and references the string writing of Messiaen’s early years, the Violin Variations and the cello in the Quartet for the End of Time. A pleasant piece, but ultimately lacking in focus or direction.

The concert ended with the impressive Upon Silence by George Benjamin, scored, like the earlier Goehr works, for voice and viols. Benjamin’s approach to the consort is completely different to Goehr’s; he treats it as a unit from which to draw singular, although always multi-faceted, textures. He moves into extended performance techniques, with glissandos across natural harmonics and some ambitious double stoppings. His use of the voice (setting Yeats) is particularly inspired, always idiomatic but never falling back on convention, and with new ideas and surprises at every turn. In all these respects Upon Silence, is a clear precursor to Written on Skin, and many of the musical ideas upon which that extraordinary work is based can be heard in nascent form here. The piece is over 20 years old though, suggesting that the consummate sound world of Benjamin’s new opera has been gradually refining in his mind for decades.

Gavin Dixon