‘Musical Encounters with George
Benjamin’ continued with this concert, in which Benjamin’s choices brought
a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, his own Sometime
Voices and Three Scenes from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette.
As always, this led to a balanced yet stimulating evening of music.
Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms
is a highly characteristic work, rhythmically alive and vital, yet with
some extraordinarily deep, slow writing. It makes sometimes extreme
demands on the orchestra (the scoring excludes upper strings and clarinets)
– not that one would guess it here. Chords were almost preternaturally
together, accents were explosive and horns rose to the challenge of
the sudden almost Mahlerian outburst of the third movement marvellously.
Davis seemed to want to emphasise the lyrical side of the work, linking
this perhaps to the devotional. So the horn and ‘cello phrase before
the chorus’ ‘Exaudi’ was milked for all its worth, and the very close
of the piece’s hypnotic aura fell nicely in to place (surely this is
what Benjamin refers to when he writes that the Symphony of Psalms,
‘gives one the impression of participating in a grand but very human
ritual’). The second movement, though, showed the most weakness. Despite
enormously impressive wind playing in the opening instrumental fugue,
shortly after the entrance of the chorus it all became far too diffuse
and unfocussed – uncomfortably so, in fact. Nevertheless, overall this
Stravinsky was an impressive achievement: the LSO made light of Stravinsky’s
challenges, while the LSC proved their status as the greatest of London’s
The baritone Alan Opie was originally
scheduled to sing the solo in Benjamin’s Sometime Voices of 1996.
Unfortunately he was unable to appear, and William Dazeley stepped into
his shoes. Sometime Voices takes its inspiration from Caliban’s
speech from Act 3 scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There
is no way one could have guessed that Dazeley was a substitution, so
strong and confident was his voice, so clear his diction. Placed imposingly
behind the chorus (who chant the name of ‘Caliban’ throughout the piece,
with the cries becoming ever more insistent), it was Dazeley’s performance
from the very start. His lamenting melisma on the final line, ‘I cried
to dream again’, was truly touching. The LSC again seemed entirely at
home. Sometime Voices served as a reminder of the sheer compositional
talent of George Benjamin: his harmonic and orchestrational palette
is seemingly without end.
Davis’ Berlioz rarely fails to
impress, and this was no exception. George Benjamin’s programme note
was at pains to point out the progressive nature of Berlioz (‘Berlioz
was the true inventor of the modern orchestra’). The Queen Mab Scherzo,
Mendelssohn and then some, brought out the miracles of Berlioz’ orchestration.
The hunting calls for horns were particularly worthy of mention in this
performance. Perhaps the extended Love Scene was most impressive,
though. Benjamin refers to this as, ‘an important predecessor to Wagner’s
Tristan’ and indeed the timeless, tenderly delicate atmosphere
Davis evoked made this a particularly believable statement. Such was
the intensity of this movement that it almost overshadowed the final
excerpt (Romeo alone … Festivities at the Capulets), despite
all the care lavished on the latter.
With microphones present at this
concert it will be interesting to see if the LSO will issue all of the
pieces, or whether the recording apparatus was only there for Colin
Davis’ Berlioz? It would indeed be a treat if, especially, the Benjamin
were to be issued at budget price.
Benjamin is evidently seeking
to be thought-provoking in his programming of his series. On this occasion
he certainly succeeded.