Sharing a Duet and a Dream: George Benjamin at 60

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Knussen, Messiaen, Benjamin and Janáček: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), James Hall (countertenor), Philharmonia Voices (Ladies), Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 5.3.2020. (CSa)

Sir George Benjamin (c) Chris Christodoulou

Knussen Choral

Messiaen Le Merle bleu from Catalogue d’oiseaux

Benjamin Duet for piano and orchestra; Dream of the Song

Janáček Sinfonietta

Sir George Benjamin chose to celebrate his 60th birthday at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the company of pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, countertenor James Hall, voices and players from the Philharmonia and a near capacity audience, in a programme simply entitled George Benjamin: A Duet and A Dream. The ‘duet’ in question was a reference to his delicate but potent Duet for piano and orchestra, and the ‘dream’ his darkly sensuous song cycle Dream of the Song.

Written in 2008, and dedicated to Aimard, Benjamin’s Duet maps out a musical landscape which is both austere and intricate. Scored for piano, timpani and harp (all positioned to the left of the platform), and cellos, double basses, and brass (grouped together to the right), orchestral forces conversed with piano in an uneasy and carefully uncoordinated 14-minute dialogue. Tension was ramped up by fragmentary bursts from quivering cellos, intermittently soothed by throaty, fluttering asides from the clarinet. Aimard dramatically contrasted to great effect the stark lyricism of the piano’s lonely soliloquies against a canvas of elaborately brilliant orchestral passages.

Duet, which occupied the first half of the concert, was preceded by works written by two of Benjamin’s musical heroes. The first was by his friend and father figure, the late Oliver Knussen, who wrote Choral for wind, percussion and double basses between 1970 and 1972. The piece opens with a dark primordial fanfare from trombones, suggestive of the vision experienced by Knussen, in which he saw ‘several funeral processions converging onto a point in the distance’. To an accompaniment of chirruping flutes, plaintive woodwind, gongs and chimes, the mournful cortege moved in slow procession to its dissonant conclusion and seemed, somewhat eerily, to anticipate the composer’s own untimely death two years ago.

The second work was by Benjamin’s revered teacher, Olivier Messiaen. Le Merle bleu from the famously chromesthesic composer’s Catalogue d’oiseaux for solo piano, is as joyous a composition as Knussen’s piece is solemn. Aimard, whose playing ranged from hammer blow precision to airy expansiveness, skilfully evoked the Mediterranean call of the Blue Rock Thrush flying, as Messiaen noted, ‘above overhanging cliffs above a sea of Prussian blue and sapphire blue.’

Benjamin’s haunting, lingering Dream of the Song played out after the interval. This song cycle for countertenor, chorus and orchestra, is a mixture of English translations of poems by medieval Spanish Jewish scholars Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel HaNagid and pieces by Frederico Garcia Lorca. Composed shortly after his opera Written on Skin, Benjamin claims to have been obsessed with ‘the image of ornate countertenor lines revolving in an orb of choral sound’ and has tried to capture ‘a silvery tone for the piece’. His choice of poetry which ‘abounds in imagery of stars and moonlight’ proved to be the perfect vehicle for James Hall whose crystal diction, velvet toned middle register and almost steely purity of voice in the upper register, brought voluptuous beauty and metallic edge to the music.

The concert concluded with a glorious performance of Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Like heralds manning the ramparts of Brno’s hilltop castle, 11 trumpets, two bass trumpets and two euphoniums from the Philharmonia’s Own Troop positioned themselves high in choirstalls above the orchestra to sound the famous introductory Fanfare. Leading his fine orchestra with linear economy through the Sinfonia’s five movements, each depicting one of Brno’s famous landmarks, Benjamin took us on a suitably rollicking, celebratory birthday journey, ending in a compelling final coda at the steps of the City’s Old Town Hall.

Chris Sallon

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