A Marvellous End to George Benjamin Day at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Antonioni, Sawer, and Benjamin:Susanna Andersson (soprano), Hilary Summers (contralto), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, George Benjamin (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.4.2013 (MB)

Francesco AntonioniBallata (2008)
David Sawer: Rumpelstiltskin Suite (2011, world première)
George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill (2006)

This concert was the final event in the Wigmore Hall’s George Benjamin Day. A morning concert, which I had been unable to attend, had offered various chamber works, played by Carolin Widmann (violin), Adam Walker (flute), and Marino Formenti (piano). There was also a pre-concert interview between Benjamin and Wigmore Hall director, John Gilhooly, the interview reminding one just what a difficult business composition is, especially for someone so self-critical and exquisite in craftsmanship as Benjamin.

Francesco Antonioni’s Ballata was a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group commission, first performed in 2009. Its material is derived from a lullaby, sung by an unidentified female singer, recorded in the 1950s by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, and a fourteenth-century ballade, Ecco la primavera – might we dare hope for that at long last? – by Francesco Landini. Written for strings (three violins, two violas, two cellos, and one double bass), it inevitably elicits sonorities that put one in mind of otherwise quite dissimilar pieces for string ensemble or orchestra. That the odd chord-spacing reminded me of, say, Strauss’s Metamorphosen or Honegger’s Second Symphony probably has no further relevance than that. One was perhaps a little closer to the mark in hearing hints of post-Ligeti swarming, albeit with a post-Romantic sensibility that remained at least as strong. Certainly a lyrical impulse, unsurprising given the inspiration, persistently manifested itself. There were some beautiful ‘frozen’ – or, perhaps better, ‘freezing’ – moments too. Sections were sharply characterised without sounding ‘sectional’. The BCMG musicians appeared to give a fine account under Benjamin; commitment was certainly palpable.

David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin Suite, co-commissioned by the BCMG and the Wigmore Hall, received its world première. I was struck by the balletic quality to much of this often very pictorial music. Prokofiev’s sense of fantasy never seemed far away, likewise Stravinsky in various respects: sonority (at times Symphonies of Wind Instruments, despite the mixed nature of the ensemble), rhythms, and a sense of music theatre that inescapably brought impressions of The Soldier’s Tale. There was woodwind rejoicing, mixed with foreboding, during the section I assume to have been depicting the wedding of the miller’s daughter to the king and her coronation; there was spinning from the strings and harp. And it was difficult not to hear some sort of homage to The Rite of Spring in ‘Rumpelstiltskin’s Last Dance’. It was colourful, full of character; an excellent choice, I should imagine, to introduce children to ‘contemporary music’.

Benjamin’s masterly chamber opera, Into the Little Hill, followed the interval, Susanna Anderson and Hilary Summers the soloists. It is extraordinary, though gratifying, to think that, although it was only first performed in 2006, this wonderful opera has already, quite rightly, attained ‘classic’ status. Martin Crimp’s libretto helps, offering the conjunction of a timeless morality of politicians and broken promises, with the opportunity for particular resonances at particular times, as well of course as being finely judged in the potential it allows for music. ‘All music – smiles the minister – is incidental.’ To which the man, Benjamin, and we, reply that nothing could be further from the truth. ‘This is our home. Our home is under the earth./With the angel under the earth./And the deeper we burrow the brighter his music burns.’ This country may be less obsessed with Jimmy Savile than it was a few months ago, but issues concerning child abduction and paedophilia insinuate themselves nevertheless.

Hearing Into the Little Hill again, so soon after the Royal Opera’s performances of Written on Skin, one appreciates that the path is not straightforwardly linear from the former to the latter. Some of the sounds, and indeed the ideas, are arguably more dramatically rebarbative than anything in the Pelléas-soaked world of Benjamin’s – and Crimp’s – second opera. For me, the furious crowd interventions, voiced though they may be by two singers alone, evoke the viciousness of the turba choruses in Bach’s Passions. ‘Kill them they bite/kill them they steal/kill them they take bread take rice…’ In our present-day climate the rats could be ‘benefit claimants’ at the mercy of the mob. Benjamin’s score is, as one would expect, beautifully crafted in its entirety, always revealing more, the short Interlude between the fourth and fifth scenes, for instance, offering a disturbingly exquisite hesitant journey somewhere between pointillism and arabesque. The hieratic quality at the beginning of Part Two perhaps brought echoes – at least in this listener’s head, on this occasion – of Messiaen and Boulez. And the sense of a breakdown of musical mechanisms at the end sounded both utterly characteristic of Benjamin and evocative of earlier examples from Prokofiev (the close of the Fifth Symphony) to Knussen. Once again the BCMG did the music proud, as did Benjamin’s own focused direction. Andersson proved an intrepid, seemingly fearless soprano, as beautiful of voice as precise of pitch. High notes thereby registered with full expressive attention rather than mere technical achievement. Summers’s extraordinary contralto remains quite unlike any other voice I have heard. It sometimes seems to possess an almost primæval, ‘untrained’ quality, musicianship worn lightly, and offered not only excellently judged contrast with the soprano but also winning alchemy with Karen Jones’s bass flute. A masterpiece confirmed, then, and given a new lease of performing life.

Mark Berry