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George BENJAMIN (b.1960)
the Little Hill (2006) [36:58]; Dance Figures (2004) [16:01];
Sometime Voices (1996) [10:09]
Anu Komsi (soprano); Hilary Summers (alto); Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Modern, BBC Symphony Orchestra,
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Franck
Ollu (conductor), Kent Nagano (conductor), Oliver Knussen (conductor)
9-11 November 2007, Bockenheimer Depot, Frankfurt Opera; 29 March
2008, Barbican, London; 13 February 2005 Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
NIMBUS NI5828 [67:14]
Benjamin is one of the UK’s leading voices in the contemporary
music scene, with widespread recognition and a pedigree of
hallowed teachers, not least Messiaen and Alexander Goehr.
Into the Little Hill is Benjamin’s first operatic work
and comes in the form of a 36 minute work in two parts for
soprano, alto and ensemble of fifteen players. This includes
unusual sounds such as bass flute, two basset-horns, contrabass
clarinet, mandolin and banjo. The work is a setting of a text
by Martin Crimp which deals with the story of the Pied Piper.
The setting is modern, with references to aspects of contemporary
life, such as suitcases, limousines, money and photographs.
This is a timeless story which is expertly handled to be relevant
to contemporary life. Benjamin’s handling of the text is no
less expert. His vocal writing has an individual style which
Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers perform with a sense of complete
naturalness and an almost organic flow. The emotional impact
of the music is wide-ranging, from the dramatic opening bars
which cannot fail to grab the attention (Kill them they
bite, Kill them they steal) to the mournful and more intimate
moments (such as in track 5, where the child asks why must
the rats die mummy? over the sound of a solo bass flute),
and the moments of panic (where is my child?). The
musical material is fast paced in its changes but retains
a strong sense of unity and direction throughout. Benjamin’s
musical language is fresh and instantly engaging, and the
ensemble writing is handled with skill and flair. This is
a first rate performance of an excellent piece of music.
is a set of nine short pieces for orchestra, composed in 2004.
Its full title is Nine Choreographic scenes for orchestra.
Benjamin creates a range of characterisations between the
pieces, which form a coherent whole. There is a sense of refinement
in these pieces; the textures have clarity and Benjamin does
not seem afraid to interrupt the overall direction to change
the mood of a section. Undoubtedly, this serves to heighten
the direction rather than to hamper it; variety in that sense
works here to maintain interest and to develop the music’s
expression. This is a fine piece of orchestral writing, which
gathers momentum until its dramatic end. This version is an
impeccable live recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under
the experienced baton of Oliver Kussen.
final work on this disc is another live recording, of Sometime
Voices, written a decade earlier than Into the Little
Hill, for baritone, choir and orchestra. This is a ten
minute piece which makes use of verses from Shakespeare (The
Tempest). Benjamin’s craftsmanship is no less apparent
here; the music appears to take on layers – in the foreground
the baritone soloist takes on long, emotive lines, richly
expressive and sumptuous in their tone. The middle ground
is taken by the orchestral accompaniment, which unfolds with
fragmentary colours and poised rhythmic definition. Perhaps
most magically of all, the choir holds its position in the
background, pianissimo for much of the work, creating a haunting
and dream-like atmosphere. That music can work so convincingly
in these different strata is testament to Benjamin’s compositional
genius. Although this is a short work it is a major composition
in terms of its far-reaching emotional impact. The climactic
moment is truly breathtaking, surpassed only by the impact
of the sudden return of the solo baritone for the final line
of the text. A stunning performance, which, in combination
with the other works heard here, makes this CD.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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