Benjamin 'Into the Little Hill'
Three pieces that span a decade in George Benjamin’s output, and three works that demonstrate how this composer, still the most fastidious and even obsessively perfectionist of any musician of his generation, has expanded his creative horizons in recent years. It’s an article of faith for Benjamin that all of his scores should be self-contained proofs of the perfected system of harmony, rhythm and structure that he designs ab ovo for each work, and that each note, each phrase marking even, should be in the right place.
Into the Little Hill is a lyric tale in two parts for soprano, contralto and ensemble of 15 players, and was commissioned by the Festival d’Automne à Paris, with a contribution from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation; Opéra National de Paris; and Ensemble Modern, with a contribution from the Forberg Schneider Foundation.
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. 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.
Dance Figures 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.
The 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. Carla Rees, musicweb-international.com