George Benjamin: Into The Little Hill, Dream of the Song & Flight
Written in his late teens: Flight, for solo flute, whose swooping crests and curlicues are fervently relished in Michael Cox’s performance. Benjamin describes the piece as ‘inspired by the sight of birds soaring and dipping over the peaks of the Swiss Alps’. Listening to the piece you’ll hear a panoply of songs surfing the musical thermals in the alpine ether: low, long-breathed cries and calls, filigree flocks of ornamentation in the atmospheric heights of the flute’s register, a chorus of vapours conjured by a single instrument.
Into The Little Hill is based on the Pied Piper story, allowing audiences an immediate entry point into the opera’s dramaturgy. But Crimp’s re-telling simultaneously updates the story, with its politicians, photographs, and limousines, and opens up further mythic dimensions to the narrative. The drama of Into the Little Hill is concise, clear, and simultaneously ambiguous, even chilling. Benjamin says, ‘Martin’s text is hard-edged, formal, and hyper-condensed’. The reason for its musical and dramatic success is Benjamin’s unerring feeling for expressive characterisation. Each layer of Into the Little Hill’s score is immediately identifiable, from the Crowd’s baying cries of ‘Kill them’ right at the start of the piece, to the rodentine scurrying of the rat’s music, and the Mother’s lamenting grief in the last scene.
Dream of the Song is a mysteriously sensual and sensually strange song-cycle for countertenor, a halo of female voices that are similar in register, but so different in timbre and sound and expression, and orchestra. The counter-tenor sings poems, in English, by Jewish poets of 11th century Andalucia, themselves inspired by Arabic poetry of earlier centuries. There are images of ravishment and wonder here - moonlight, the celestial tent of the sky, a dream of a gazelle, a harp, a flute - but they are always undercut by other ideas. Above all, it’s the gossamer rapier of Benjamin’s music that cuts to the heart of these settings.
Be ready. The opening of George Benjamin’s 40 minute opera Into the Little Hill gives quite a jolt when heard live, and the effect is magnified in the purely auditory realm of CD. If anything, this second recording of Benjamin and Librettist Martin Crimp’s exceptionally concise reimagining of the pied piper story, with two singers conveying all the roles and the story’s narration, is even taute and a shade harder edged than the first (also on Nimbus). While that featured the singers from the original production, the new version boasts long-standing Benjamin advocate Susan Bickley alongside the highly versatile soprano Hila Plitmann with the composer at the helm. The result is first rate, conveying the power of this ancient tale that holds up an unforgiving mirror to contemporary society.
The opera performance is reason enough to buy this disc, but it is equally welcome for the recording of Benjamin’s stunning recent song-cycle Dream of the Song (a recording also available on the Royal concertgebouw’s own label). Written for Bejun Mehta, the countertenor who so impressed in Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, this alluring, yet unsettling work surrounds his voice with a female chorus and an orchestra deployed with the composer’s customary precision. With texts exploring aspects of morality and time passing, the settings range from the Mehta’s breathtaking stillness against quiet choral mumerings in ‘Gazing through the night’ to the searing exhortations for the choir alone of ‘Gacela del amor maravilloso’.
With a fine performance from Michael Cox of the earl solo flute piece Flight, serving effectively as a bridge between the opera and song-cycle, this latest addition by Nimbus to the Benjamin discography is altogether essential listening.
- BBC MusicMagazine
Into the Little Hill has its second version at Nimbus, after that of the creators Franck Ollu and Ensemble Modern in 2007. If one loses a great voice (the British contralto Hilary Summers), one gains the direction chiselled by the composer in this heady lyrical tale that precedes by six years the highly celebrated opera Written on Skin. Founded on "verses written by three poets who have in common to have spent their formative years in Granada," Dream of the Song (2015) associates eleventh-century Hebrew writers, translated into English, with Federico Garcia Lorca. The first are sung by the countertenor, the second by a women's choir. The opportunity for Benjamin to suggest the Moorish art of the Andalouse town by a fine mellistic writing for the winds. The dissonances burst into the vehement interlude, but here the crystalline sounds of the sun rise: the extreme delicacy of the textures - the chorus of women acting as a jewel in which the soloist loves. The work opens into vast spaces ("what deserts of light sank the sands of dawn!" Exclaims the poet of the Divan de Tamarit). Would the cycle have the same impact if it were sung by a mezzo? Independently of its intrinsic qualities, its strength probably owes much to the fragile timbre, moving in these feverish thrusts, of Bejun Mehta, coated with the silent Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. Dream of the Song is certainly one of the most beautiful and accessible works of Benjamin, along with Palimpsests.
- Jérémie Biqorie, Classica, France
"This collection of George Benjamin's work is a unique opportunity for the listener to taste the richness, variety and character of his repertoire. Known for both compositions of the likes of Antara and Sudden Time, and for his prestigious orchestral conduct, Benjamin, born in 1960, has always been distinguished by its overwhelming creative power and its meticulousness and attention to detail. Not surprisingly, criticism has shaped the British as a composer of small miniatures, such as worn gems, since he has often spent years writing and debugging relatively short pieces. He opens the recording Into the little hill, in operatic style, it is a "lyrical tale" - in the words of the author - for soprano, alto and chamber orchestra. These intense and disturbing eight cuts based on a text by Martin Crimp make up an updated narration of the story of the flute player in Hamelín. Even before being immortalized by the Grimm, it was a German legend with an enigmatic historical reference: the disappearance of a crowd of children in 1384. Crim update the story and clarify it with references to politicians, limousines, etc., opening new dimensions they make the most shocking metaphor. The music is descriptive, dramatic and not without vital anguish: the echoes of the mob asking for the death of the rats, the erratic rapid walking of the rodents, the ploy of the mother of the last scene.
Flight continues, for flute, masterfully interpreted by Michael Cox. George Benjamin affirms that his inspiration for the piece comes from the observation of the Swiss
- Neil Manel Frau-Cortes
It took George Benjamin some time to venture into the opera grounds. In 2006, the "lyrical tale" Into the Little Hill was an initiatory stage on which, thanks to the buzzing news of the composer, the spotlight is again focused.Emotional climax of the work, the interlude (V) is also the structural center. Benjamin has managed the feat of concentrating even more in this moment of sweetness all the unspoken violence of the tale. The melody entrusted to the bass flute, which crosses the interlude not without recalling the inflections of a raga played in the bansuri, is certainly here in good hands, in this case those of Michael Cox, who also interprets the pretty - albeit quite classic - Flight piece given in addition to the program. However, we tend to prefer the sweetness even more haunting, perfectly in situation given the subject, which wrapped Dietmar Wiesner.In general, and probably also because of a more precise sound recording, we have in this version a great polyphonic transparency of the instrumental parts, the clarity of the textures never detracting from their organicity or their breathing. The very particular composition of the staff (with among others hornet bass, cornets, mandolin, banjo and cimbalom) requires a very precise balance so that its astringency, certainly wanted, is not the only option possible, and the palette of hues here is controlled with finesse. In addition to the solo flute piece, the complement of this program includes Dream of the Song (2014-2015) for contretener, female choir and orchestra. Set against the backdrop of 11th century texts by Andalusian Jewish poets and García Lorca's Diván del Tamarit, it is mainly a universe of very ornate and flexible melodic lines that unfolds in a translucent and resonant environment, directly reminiscent of the opera Written on Skin. The extremely flexible voice of Bejun Mehta ideally carries this ductile and living material.
- By Pierre Rigaudière