Another fascinating concert by Ensemble Modern and George Benjamin at Musikfest Berlin

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin 2023 [3] – Chin, Ogonek, Filidei, Benjamin, and Ammann: Anna Prohaska (soprano), Ensemble Modern / Sir George Benjamin (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 3.9.2023. (MB)

Anna Prohaska and Ensemble Modern conducted by Sir George Benjamin © Fabian Schellhorn

Unsuk Chin – SPIRA
Elizabeth Ogonek – Cloudline
Francesco Filidei – Cantico delle Creature (world premiere)
Benjamin – A Mind of Winter
Dieter Ammann – glut

The second of George Benjamin’s Ensemble Modern concerts, again with Anna Prohaska, offered four pieces from the last decade, one a world premiere, together with an early work of Benjamin’s own. Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA (2019) was the first of three works from composers born within a couple of years of each other, the other two being Dieter Ammann and Benjamin himself. Having just noticed SPIRA is officially described as a concerto for orchestra, I am patting myself on the back just a little, though it should probably be the composer (and performers) I am acknowledging, for it came across in that vein, albeit, as one might expect, reinvented, different instruments seemingly presenting their own standpoint on the orchestra. Indeed, the idea of a standpoint or perspective seemed to me key both to work and performance. Whether the opening were a matter of the rest of the orchestra responding, via a series of shocks, to gradual opening out from tuned (bowed) percussion, or the two vibraphones, xylophone, and others responding to those shocks is perhaps in itself a matter of perspective — or a pointless question: ‘why either-or?’ Massed violin swarming perhaps inevitably brought Chin’s teacher Ligeti to mind, but there was no question that here were her own voice and her own world. Indeed, the piece seemed to convey an interest, doubtless born of Jakob Bernouill’s logarithmic spiral (whence the title), in defining limits and direction of that world. What were its edges, and where was it heading? A mystery remained at its heart, at least for this listener, and that was all to the good.

Elizabeth Ogonek’s Cloudline was premiered at the 2021 Proms, but this was the first time I had heard it. (I think the same is true of all five works, Benjamin’s included.) It certainly shared a keen sense of fantasy and indeed virtuosity with Chin’s work, and opening slithering of pitch (quartertones, I think) offered another variety of swarming, not only from strings; otherwise, though, the work offered more contrast than complement. There was here something close to representation, at least at one level. ‘Liminal’ is a word I probably overuse at the moment, but it is difficult to avoid here, given the piece’s fascinating preoccupation with clouds, their edges (again) and the lack of definition to those edges. A contrast between definition and vagueness, or at least something more frayed, sounds Debussyan, but I never experienced this as anything other than itself, not least in a feeling of outright joy that is perhaps rarer in contemporary orchestral music (or our responses) than it might be.

I felt less sure about Francesco Filidei’s Cantico delle Creature, or perhaps it is fairer to say it did not necessarily adhere to my expectations (and why should it?) There was no questioning, here or elsewhere, the excellence of the performances, to which now must be added Anna Prohaska’s committed advocacy. A setting of St Francis’s celebrated canticle joins illustrious company, not least that of Liszt, but Filidei certainly made his own way, responding, it seemed to me, to St Francis’s Umbrian dialect in a way so as to harness something old as well as something new, as revealed in Prohaska’s sometimes almost folklike delivery. Clear, bell-like, it was not trying to be anything it was not, far from it, but rather its terms of reference, moving from a wide-eyed naïveté to something more demonstrative, resonated both with words and orchestra. For this was another highly ‘atmospheric’ piece, a lengthy orchestral opening offering scene-setting pictorial and dramatic. When a vibrato-less cello (later in the piece, a viola too) entered, it suggested mediaeval intervention, a voice from a past not merely imagined. Sudden changes of metre and delivery, birdcall whistles, and more provided colour as well as formal staging posts. This was not necessarily a subtle work, but instead often highly gestural; in any case, subtlety was hardly called for.

Sir George Benjamin conducts Ensemble Modern © Fabian Schellhorn

Benjamin’s A Mind of Winter, from 1981, after Wallace Stevens, proved an astonishingly accomplished piece from the word go, its orchestral sound world, icy yet full of life, immediately, as it were, ‘created’ and immanent. The composer’s use of the voice, and his soloist’s use of hers, were both unquestionably vocal and daringly instrumental: two sides, we realised, of the same coin. Wind echoes made that point still clearer. Somewhere between a scena and a tone poem, it was in reality only ever ‘itself’, over too soon, which is always a good sign. Word-setting always told, always added something; this was never merely ‘setting’ the text. It was always, moreover, a response to English words, in an emphatic sense. Prohaska’s animated, even possessed performance gave a sense that this too might have been written for. It was not, of course, but what greater compliment can be offered — in either direction? ‘For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’

Ammann’s glut (2014-16) opened in immediate, indeed urgent fashion. Uniquely, among the pieces heard here, it employed full orchestra at the start, thus setting up expectations and contrasts. Indeed, it proved remarkably relentless – not in a bad way – something of a riot, with swagger to match. Ammann seemed readier to include tonal voices, or more interested in doing so, though probably more from a spectralist standpoint than anything neoromantic (which was not suggested). Diversity of material and (again) standpoints, of texture and direction, contributed to a sense of a huge mass, not only of sound but of musicians, moving forward, slowly but surely, though one could perhaps perceive that only after the event. At the time, one enjoyed the ride, without necessary thought, less alone knowledge, as to where it might take one.

Mark Berry

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