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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.

George Benjamin: Into The Little Hill, Dream of the Song & Flight


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 PERFORMANCE *****     RECORDING ****

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