Engrossing Experiences During George Benjamin Day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom George Benjamin Day: Soloists, George King (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra, George Benjamin (conductor). LSO St Luke’s and Barbican Hall, London, 19.3.2016. (MB)

George Benjamin
George Benjamin

Purcell, arr. Benjamin – Fantasia 7 (1995)

BenjaminFlight (1978-9); Viola, Viola (1997); Shadowlines (2001)

Bach, arr. BenjaminCanon and Fugue from ‘The Art of Fugue’ (2007)

Written on Skin (2009-12) 

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Tim Mead
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Robert Murray
Benjamin Davis (director of semi-staged performance)

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin could hardly have had superior reception. Wherever it has gone, it has triumphed. Bizarrely, an American opera house intendant, smarting at the acclaim accorded an opera that did not offer his favoured brand of neo-tonal pandering (Jennifer Higdon?!), lamented that Benjamin’s brilliant score was not something one would ‘sit down and play [a recording of] … at dinner’. All I can say to that is that Mr Gockley must host strange dinner parties – ‘honoured guests, meet your hostess, the lovely Lulu’ – and his preferred way of experiencing opera, eccentric for anyone, would seem in itself to disqualify him from running an opera house.  That, however, was not remotely consonant with the success witnessed on either side of the Atlantic, indeed on either side of the Channel.

I was a little suspicious first time around. Are not masterpieces supposed to fail before an initially uncomprehending public, incite a riot, or at least receive an insufficient performance? No, of course not, although such mythologies can be fun, not least in enabling us to feel superior to our predecessors. Surely, though, there must have been something wrong when critical and audience unanimity is so striking. (Yes, there will always be the odd exception, but who cares?) Nevertheless, when I saw the work at the end of its Covent Garden run, I had no option but to join the adoring throng. Happily, this Mahler Chamber Orchestra performance, again under the baton of the composer, confirmed me in my judgement that Written on Skin is an unalloyed masterpiece, although in some ways I find its predecessor, Into the Little Hill, the more provocative work and certainly a masterpiece too. I see no point in simply repeating a description of what has already become a repertory work; what I wrote in 2013 may, however be read here for those unfamiliar or in need of a reminder. (I was surprised, myself, about how much I had forgotten!) However, I shall make some remarks about what struck me on this particular occasion, and of course upon the performances themselves.

It seems almost obligatory for a serious new opera to reflect in some way upon the nature of opera; or is it that it is almost obligatory for a serious opera audience to do so? You see, the questions begin already. (Or is it that I am unhealthily obsessed with the operas of Richard Strauss…?) Here, at any rate, what struck me, perhaps still more so in what was close to a concert performance – not meant as disrespect to Benjamin Davis’s able direction – was how much the opera’s status is entwined with that of the Boy’s book, ‘written on skin’. That illuminates – in more than one sense – our experience of the work’s progress as drama and the complexity, somehow nevertheless simple, of the relationship between mediæval setting and contemporary reception. Martin Crimp’s libretto, of course, points the way in that respect, introducing anachronisms as well as well-nigh ritually identifying narration, said the critic.

Had this been Birtwistle, say, there would surely have been a parallel, indeed questioning, ritual in the music. Despite the toing and froing of the Angels, I do not really hear that here. Benjamin’s way is different; I have no wish to ascribe ‘influence’ here; but in its length – perfect for but a few masterpieces by the likes of Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, and a very few others – and in the assuredness of its narrative, I was put more in mind of Berg and Janáček. The division into three parts is perhaps a minor indication of that. The astounding musical climaxes of each part are perhaps more akin to the great operas of Janáček, although Wozzeck is surely not so very far away in some intangible, maybe even tangible, sense. The score presents other points of reference, always refracted, and did, I think, in performance too. Benjamin wrote the opera with the particular sound of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in mind. Here it’s relatively small numbers, at least when it came to strings, were utterly belied by their sound, especially at those climaxes, but also in cushioning the voices and speaking, almost Wagner-like, as our Greek Chorus. Although famously a Messiaen pupil – sometimes one is tempted to ask: who was not? – it is not so often that I have heard Messiaen in Benjamin; here, in certain chords, even progressions, I fancied that I did (just, actually as I did in one of the works in the earlier concert, on which more below). Boulez, perhaps inevitably, came to mind too: again certain matters of kinship rather than influence, I think: the exquisite alchemy of melody, harmony, and timbre, for instance, with roots in earlier music surely renewing their musico-dramatic vows, poignantly reminding us that Boulez himself never wrote the opera he always planned, and which we always longed for. There is, I think, no parallel for the use to which Benjamin puts some of the most ear-catching instrumental solos: bass viol, glass harmonica, and so on. They may be used elsewhere, but there is nothing evidently Mozartian about, say, the latter. Nor need there be. This is confident writing in skin from a composer entirely bien dans sa peau.

There was nothing, needless to say, to beware of in Benjamin’s conducting of the score. His quiet authority seemed to speak almost unmediated, although that is of course ever an illusion of performance. Likewise, the playing of the MCO, reaching the end of a European tour with the conductor-composer, seemed almost beyond praise. Three of the original, Aix-en-Provence cast returned (Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, and Victoria Simmonds). It might on some occasion be reassuring to find something adversely to criticise in a performance by Hannigan. Now was not, however, the occasion to do so. Her musico-dramatic portrayal of Agnès judged to perfection, almost as if emerging from the divided (at one point, Paul Griffiths’s note tells us, fifteen-part) MCO strings themselves, the character’s journey to selfhood, erotic fulfilment, and ultimately (necessary) tragedy. If it were Hannigan’s voice that ultimately continued to resonate once we had left the hall, the dangerous allure of Tim Mead’s counter-tenor came close. The complete identification of Purves with the role of Protector seemed, if anything, to bring still more dramatic daring than at Covent Garden. He could edge towards speech where he wished, without one ever suspecting that to be a musical failing. His eyes said it all; except his voice said more. Simmonds and Robert Murray brought subtlety and dramatic energy, as well as musical security, to their ‘lesser’ roles, still crucial – as, indeed, was every part of this outstanding performance.

Earlier in the day, a few minutes’ walk away at LSO St Luke’s, we had heard ‘Lunchtime with George’, a splendid survey of some of the composer’s chamber works from members of the MCO and, in the case of the piano piece, Shadowlines, George King. First was Benjamin’s arrangement of a Purcell Fantasia (Jaan Bossier (clarinet), Sonja Starke (violin), Maximilian Hornung (cello), Alphonse Cemin (celesta)). In one of his wonderfully engaging introductory conversations with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, Benjamin described Purcell’s early viol consort works as some of the greatest music ever written on this island. Indeed they are – and would that we heard them as often as their stature demands, or even a little more often. Already an old, verging upon archaic, genre when Purcell wrote them, they seem almost made to encourage such dialogue between past and present, and were indeed written, alongside arrangements by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews, as part of an Aldeburgh anniversary tribute to the English Orpheus. The second half in that concert was to be Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; Benjamin switched Messiaen’s piano for celesta, imparting an unearthly feeling to the music which, in retrospect, might fancifully be heard as prefiguring that angelic glass harmonic in Written on Skin. Slow, steady progress of the first part and alternation with the quicker sections exchanged echt-Purcellian melancholy for something approaching high spirits, yet the suspicion of loss remained. Glassy, vibrato-less stringed instruments gained in vibrating allure, yet the journey was never one-way; this is thoughtful ‘authenticity’ rather than the fatwa of a period ayatollah. I thought at one point of Berio, although the sound and the sensibility are different. Music mediates, brings us together, perhaps especially when our way of listening – Pulcinella, anyone? – is called into question and enhanced.

Júlia Gállego was the solo flautist for one of Benjamin’s earliest-published pieces, Flight. Gállego worked with the composer seemingly as one, to convey, as well as melodic, Messiaenic profusion, a sense of harmonic ‘depth’, almost programmatically so, given the inspiration of ‘the sight of birds soaring and dipping over the peaks of the Swiss Alps’. Form was dynamically revealed; attack was endlessly varied. There was, ultimately, a splendid sense of numinous mystery: here, indeed, was a pupil of Messiaen.

Viola, Viola was written, at the invitation of Toru Takemitsu, for Yuri Bashmet and Nobuko Imai to perform at the 1997 opening of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. If it managed to fill that hall, then it would scarcely have problems at St Luke’s. Nor did it under the violists’ worthy successors, Anna Puig Torné and Béatrice Muthelet. Confounding expectations seemed to me a theme, intentional or otherwise, of work and performance. Not only is this, as it were, an orchestral work for but two instrumentalists, but everything seems unpredictable, whilst making perfect sense after it has happened. (I have doubtless read too much Hegel to be thinking of him here, but such is the way of his dialectic, or indeed of theories of evolution.) Moments of éclat – Boulez on my mind here! – registered powerfully, unexpected yet anything but arbitrary. Harmonics, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not, could be understood at least in this sense to perform a similar role. Implied harmonies were again conveyed in masterly fashion, both as work and performance. (Apologies for any sexism there, but ‘mistressly’ really does not work!) Moments of Bartók seemed to echo, now strident, now tinged once again with Purcellian melancholy. Sometimes, if I closed my eyes, I could have sworn there were more than two players, whether ‘ancient’ consort or ‘modern’ quartet. A Mussorgskian bell, but no pealing? Maybe it was that I had recently heard Boris. Stravinskian games: almost certainly.

King’s performance of Shadowlines sounded to me equally authoritative. Benjamin’s compositional games, whatever he might have wished, perhaps came even more to the fore in the work’s canonical progress. We heard its six sections as a continuous whole, to be sure, but also very much with their own character. The first piece, marked ‘Cantabile’, proved the gentle curtain-raiser of the composer’s own description. I thought of a Boulez Notation, at least some of its harmonies. The hand-crossing of the second movement, ‘Wild’ with almost berceuse-like rocking beneath was captured as well as I imagine the work’s dedicatee, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, having done. Duetting in the ‘Scherzando’ movement – Benjamin suggested duetting bassoons – eventually broadened into a veritable chorus, putting me in mind, despite the modern piano, of the timbral possibilities of some nineteenth-century instruments. It was the fifth of the six movements that occupied the greatest time, and here it received a volcanic, perhaps again post-Messiaenic performance, the climax superbly judged. In the end, paradoxically or maybe dialectically, the composer’s stated wish that, as in the first movement of Webern’s Symphony, we lose perception of the canon was fulfilled partly in the mediated infidelity of our experience. Vertical and horizontal elements would dissolve and find themselves reinstated; or so I imagined. The epilogue truly sounded as such; I thought of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.

Finally, Benjamin’s arrangement of the Canon in Hypodiapason and Contrapunctus VII from the Art of Fugue (Paco Varoch (flute), Stefán Jón Bernhardsson, Manuel Moya (horns), Jagdisch Mistry, Timothy Summers, Michiel Commandeur (violins), Delphine Tissot, Joel Hunter (violas), Martin Leo Schmidt (cello)). It was composed at Boulez’s request for a concert in which his own music would alternate with arrangements of Bach. (What a wonderful idea!) Benjamin’s piece takes the unique (I do not know whether it is empirically, but please humour me!) instrumentation of Mémoriale. In this, the only work requiring a conductor, Benjamin took the Canon fast, yet it never seemed remotely hurried; rather, it sounded juste. Counterpoint was ‘revealed’ in every sense, again presaging the evening’s opera. The fugue offered a change of pace and, so it seemed, of perspective, in an almost Birtwistle-like sense. (Again, I think that was just my own fancy, but so be it.) The composer’s desire to suggest an organ here was mesmerisingly fulfilled: here a sixteen-foot bourdon, there the strange alchemy – that word again – of a horn and viola duet, a miracle of ‘registration’. It made me think that it would be a very good thing, were Benjamin to write for the King of Instruments itself. Fastidious expressivity came close to Boulez; Bachian reinvention suggested the music of the spheres. This was a concert so engrossing that it too might have been written on skin.

Mark Berry

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