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Sunday 7 April 2013

George Benjamin Day at Wigmore Hall (Into the Little Hill)


© Michiharu Okubo

The Wigmore Hall's "George Benjamin day" was actually comprised of just two concerts because (as the composer claimed in an interview) he has composed so few pieces where the performers would fit on the Wigmore's stage. That is to say that he has thus far largely composed for orchestra, and I have to say that generally, I think the orchestra is the medium in which Benjamin's special gifts are most obviously revealed. There are in fact are a few other pieces which might have been played - the wonderful Viola, Viola (1997) for instance, the early Octet, and a few other piano pieces. The first concert showcased some of his instrumental and chamber works starting with a very early Sonata for violin and piano (1977) which he composed before he left school. In every way an ambitious work, it's a sort of multi movement virtuoso showpiece for both instruments which has an old school first-half-of-the-twentieth-century seriousness and lyricism, while revealing something of the older composer's ear for sonorous detail and invention. I would happily cite Carolin Widmann's violin playing as a model of great string playing - perfect control, great sense of line, endlessly varied tone colour, total conviction and passion, a beautiful fundamental sound and all completely without ego. A wonderful treat. 

Marino Formenti at the piano proved to be more problematic. Formenti's mouth is a lens through which every musical gesture must pass before it can be relayed to audience - if the facial contortions were the only manifestation of this affectation it might be bearable, but in addition we get an unending accompaniment of snuffles and growls that seriously distracts from the music - after the concert it was all I heard people comment on. It's a real shame, because he partnered Widmann with sensitivity, and he is clearly committed to the music. Unfortunately the solo piano work Shadowlines (2001) felt grey and dull, quite unlike the luminous mysteriousness that Pierre-Laurent Aimard's imbues them with on his CD performance. The three studies for piano (1982-85) which closed the concert, are more naturally appealing works. The first is a chiaroscuro study of pace and rhythm; the second, created from notes that spell out Haydn's name, conjures a quiet halo of pellucid sound around the piano; the final one feels like one of Ives' studies for piano with its frequent excursions into ragtime between more abstract episodes. Although more convincingly rendered than Shadowlines, I felt the outer movements were a bit splashy, lacking the precision that seems essential to Benjamin's music, and my enjoyment was once again marred by Formenti's very invasive groaning and heavy breathing.

In between these we got Benjamin's solo flute piece Flight (1979), which is an engaging traversal of the expressive colouristic and timbral qualities of the flute, ably dispatched by Adam Walker. Walker also played Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow by young composer Christian Mason, which sadly paled in the context of the works that surrounded it. Carolin Widmann made a welcome return in Benjamin's Three Miniatures for Solo Violin (2001) which again were played with verve and great gusto by this superb musician. 

In the evening concert larger forces were mobilised as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group played three works by different composers with Benjamin conducting. Francesco Antonioni's Ballada for string octet is an entertaining romp, explosively exploring a huge array of string techniques and sounds in a quasi tonal framework. The sheer vitality of the noise was at times pleasurable enough in a piece that perhaps does not plumb the depths, with the players clearly relishing the huge sonorities resounding so powerfully in the Wigmore acoustic. David Sawyer's Rumpelstiltskin Suite was laughably poor, but sadly also painfully long and so a real blot on the evening. The best I can say of it is that it sounded entirely professionally composed.

After the interval all sins were quickly forgiven and forgotten, as we got Benjamin's Into the Little Hill (2008). My god the quality of this score announces itself in the first bar and simply doesn't diminish in its entire 40 minute duration. The libretto is by Martin Crimp, the same librettist as Benjamin's recent opera Written on Skin, and some of the hallmarks of the more recent text are present here too - the frequent self narration of the characters, the simplicity and economy of the poetry, and the uncluttered dramatic momentum. Benjamin responds with a score of dark brilliance, infinitesimally nuanced in timbre, unflinching in invention and inspiration, and the drama seems to come as much from the musical tensions as the textual ones. In its fractured blackness and density it is quite different from the slow motion, floating diaphanousness of Written on Skin; I for one preferred the earlier piece as a dramatic and overall musical experience.

The playing of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was brilliantly detailed, and Benjamin's direction impossible to fault. The soloists were of commensurate quality. Hilary Summers's voice is pleasingly distinctive, possessing one of the most androgynous timbres I've ever heard, her diction is excellent, and if it's hardly the most luxuriant voice and doesn't have the normal depth of sound that you expect a contralto to offer, I simply can't imagine a more apt rendering of this vocal part. Susanna Andersson (replacing the originally advertised Rebecca Bottone) was if anything even more impressive, with her gloriously beautiful soubrette timbre, light in colour yet full and firm, offering superb accuracy and solidity in the high lying tessitura, and equal commitment to diction and characterisation. Surely a likely candidate for the role of The Woman in future revivals of Written on Skin. Superficially Andersson is similar to Barbara Hannigan (who premièred that role and sung it also at the ROH) sharing all of her positive qualities, but she has a voice of greater warmth, colour and beauty and lacks Hannigan's mannerisms. 

A truly wonderful performance of a wondrous work that on its own validated participation in the entire day. Pure pleasure!

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