George Benjamin Leads Ensemble Modern in Performances of Sterling Quality at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Milliken, Mason, Dallapiccola, Benjamin: Anu Komsi (soprano), Helena Rasker (contralto) Ensemble Modern / Sir George Benjamin (conductor). Wigmore Hall, 6. 3.2019. (CC)

Anu Komsi (c) Maarit Kytöharju
Anu Komsi (c) Maarit Kytöharju

Cathy Milliken – Bright Ring (2019, UK premiere)
Christian Mason – Layers of Love (2015)
Dallapiccola – Piccola Musica Notturna (1954/1961)
Benjamin – Into the Little Hill (2006)

What a joy to hear the music of our time in performances of sterling quality! In a concert that in its programming recalled the heyday of the London Sinfonietta in the 1980s, this was a celebration of the talent of now, led and championed by one of our major established composers, with a sprinkling of the Italian avant-garde of the 1950s. The Frankfurt am Main-based Ensemble Modern has established an enviable reputation which on present evidence is fully justified. The present concert was part of a European tour that began in Frankfurt on 3 March; this programme alternates with one of Boulez, Messiaen, Ustvolskaya, Ligeti and Benjamin’s own Palimpsests. Following on from this concert, after a trip up the road to the Roundhouse, the Ensemble Modern then gives the Cologne premiere of Into the Little Hill before closing the tour at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg.

A last-minute change in programme order flipped the Mason and the Milliken, meaning we started with the UK premiere of Cathy Milliken’s Bright Ring. A founding member of the Ensemble Modern as oboist, Brisbane-born and Berlin-based Milliken’s field of imagination is markedly wide. The work’s title refers on one level to the ring of energy that she perceived whilst a member of the ensemble; an aura, in other words, and as she puts it a ‘tenuous energy of collaboration and interaction … a tribute to life and what we make of it’. The title is inspired by a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (from Songs of Travel). Another source of inspiration is the auditory sound data from a satellite in the vicinity of Saturn (hence the rings); most telling is Milliken’s description of this data as of ‘granular intensity’, a concept she translates viscerally into sound, from the gritty lower register of the violins at the opening to grinding simultaneities. Against that is a balancing sonic subtlety. The ethos of the piece is ambitious, a search for the essence of energy; there was no denying the majesty of the brass fanfare gestures, while even at quieter dynamics, the piece shone with an inner light. The scoring, which includes strings as well as brass, is masterful.

On the surface, Christian Mason’s Layers of Love for 13 players opens in a similar manner to the Milliken, but, at least to the me, the entry into (pardon the pun) another world is clear. Mason has an individual, confident voice, here used in the service of the depiction of an unquantifiable longing for ‘something invisible unknown and (inevitably) unattainable’, in the words of the composer. The opening focuses on microtonal colourings of a single note, but also includes breath sounds, as if widening the meditation on sound. Two violins, one on each side of the stage, frame the central group of players, and as the piece progresses after establishing an initial harmonic flavour of a G minor chord with added flattened ninth, it goes on to explore Balkan dance, jazzy walking basses – taking the piece into implied modern jazz territory – and what in this performance appeared to be a positively outrageous rhythmic unison. The central group is placed so as to mix sonorities: trombone, cello and bass clarinet form the outer three on the right-hand side of the semicircle, for example. Mason’s expert ear resulted in a fascinatingly varied palette of sounds.

Dallapiccola’s brief Piccola Musica Notturna – another work inspired by poetry, this time Antonio Machado’s and helpfully reprinted in the Wigmore booklet – was performed in the later chamber version for three winds, strings, harp and celesta. From perfectly controlled clarinet to long, expressive cello lines to Christian Hommel’s keening oboe, this was a twilit delight, the perfect close to the first half.

Anu Komsi was one of the two wordless sopranos in a peerless performance of Salonen’s Wing on Wing (2004), performed as part of a Barbican Salonen Total Immersion day in late 2017 (review). She was joined here by the powerful Dutch contralto Helen Rasker in Sir George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp’s 40-minute Into the Little Hill, a masterpiece of concise writing. Of course, by now one is accustomed to Benjamin’s operatic mastery in Written on Skin (2012: review here). Lessons in Love and Violence followed in 2017 (Mark Berry’s review here). It was fascinating to time travel back to 2006 and hear that dramatic grasp in a piece the composer describes as a ‘lyric tale in two parts’.

Into the Little Hill is a masterpiece of concision for a mere 15 instrumentalists and two multi-character singers. The story is that of the Pied Piper, with a shadowy, mysterious Stranger striking a deal with the town leader (Minister) to rid the place of rats in exchange for money, a deal on which the Minister reneges; the price is the Stranger leading the town’s children ‘into the little hill’. If this is fairy tale, then, it veers towards dark fairy tale, a sort of Brothers Grimm-plus. Komsi’s part is hugely demanding, frequently at the very high end of her register, and delivered with an incredible control but also with a magical, silvery quality entirely in keeping with the Otherworld nature of the story. Her voice is markedly strong, too, and yet she judged the Wigmore acoustic perfectly – at least from my seat in the mid-stalls. Her attack at the onset of Part Two (‘Inside the Minister’s head’) was beyond criticism. Helena Rasker’s deep contralto was the ideal complement, her grasp of Benjamin’s intent impeccable – the way she interacted with entwining woodwind in ‘The Minister and the Stranger’ was positively hypnotic. Her breathless way with the disjointed line of ‘The Minister and the Stranger’ was similarly perfectly placed; she coped with the low register demands of ‘Mother(s) and Child(ren)’, a deathly lullaby, with perfect ease.

Benjamin’s scoring is remarkable, not least the inventive use of combinations (bass flute and cimbalom at one point; banjo and basset horns elsewhere). The bass flute at one point in ‘Mother and Child’, the fifth scene, seemed to imitate a shakuhachi. The gathered forces gave their all for the composer, projecting the restrained nightmare of the final section. No wonder the audience’s reception was so enthusiastic.

Colin Clarke

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