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International Benjamin: London Sinfonietta, George Benjamin, piano/conductor, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 18 May 2005 (TJH)

Beat Furrer: still
Unsuk Chin: Cantatrix Sopranica
George Benjamin: Shadowlines
Boulez: Éclat/Multiples

Anu Komsi, soprano
Piia Komsi, soprano
Andrew Watts, countertenor

George Benjamin has more strings to his bow than is really fair. Not only is he one of the UK’s best composers, with a growing international reputation; not only is he amongst the top rank of conductors of post-War and contemporary music; but he is also a rather good pianist, as he proved in the opening concert of his International Benjamin micro-festival. After leading the London Sinfonietta through marvellous performances of Beat Furrer and Unsuk Chin, Benjamin sat down and performed his own Shadowlines, a set of piano preludes originally written for Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Continuing his fascination with musical layering, Shadowlines pits the keyboard’s various registers against one another in an extended canonic interplay; unsurprisingly, given how many layers are often simultaneously audible, it is an enormously difficult piece to play. Benjamin proved he was up to the task, though, producing a performance of depth and subtlety, pulling the six varied movements into a single, convincing whole that was, at least in the penultimate passacaglia, rather haunting.

As good as his pianism was, though, it was no match for his conducting. Few conductors today can match Benjamin’s clarity and precision when it comes to new-music; the only other name that springs to mind is Pierre Boulez, who is also a fellow former pupil of Messiaen and a fellow composer of international renown. Boulez’s 1970 piece Éclat/Multiples was in fact the final work on Wednesday’s programme, although in many ways it was the least interesting piece on offer. It was fascinating to watch Benjamin set off the various bursts of movement in the opening Éclat, but the ritualistic sense of stasis that otherwise pervaded felt a little dated. Multiples, an extension and expansion of Éclat, is generally more approachable; it is warmer and more through-composed than the fragmented earlier work, but ultimately doesn’t have enough material to sustain its length. Both pieces, the one running on seamlessly from the other, were marvellously performed however, with the nine violists of Multiples receiving the biggest applause of the evening for their detailed and expressive collective playing.

A different take on the notion of stasis and movement had opened the concert, but Beat Furrer’s ‘still’ had enough material in it to sustain a piece twice its 15-minute length. Furrer describes “the concept of a metal disk rotating silently at high speed” and this idea – that something can be almost silent but at the same time highly charged – cropped up again and again in his piece. Sounds whirled around the Sinfonietta in a virtuoso display of orchestration, sounding at times like some crazed chase scene from a Tom & Jerry cartoon; eventually, the music disintegrated into near-silence and strange, Lachenmann-esque noises before picking itself back up again in a flashing eddy of sound. Thanks to some typically brilliant playing from the ensemble and wonderfully astute conducting from Benjamin, the piece was a definite hit with the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience.

But in many respects the highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Cantatrix Sopranica. Chin was a pupil of György Ligeti, and the influence of his music upon hers is clear: in fact, with only a few minor adjustments, her new piece might happily have been called Plus Nouvelle Aventures. As it is, the piece takes its title from a bogus scientific paper by Georges Perec in which he attempted to prove that hurling rotten tomatoes (of the variety Tomato rungisia vulgaris) at sopranos (Cantatrix sopranica L.) provoked a measurable “yelling reaction” conforming to certain “tomatotopical organisation patterns”. Chin’s own Cantatrix Sopranica, however, produced a reaction far rarer in the concert hall than yelling: that of laughter. An eight-part song cycle for two sopranos (twin sisters Anu and Piia Komsi), countertenor (the unflaggingly arch Andrew Watts) and ensemble, it was a piece overflowing with ironic references to other music, beginning with a très Aventures vocal warm up appropriately called Warming up – Tuning. The fifth movement, Con tutti I Fantasmi began as a parody of the Italian bel canto tradition, complete with flamboyant gesticulation from the three singers and concluding with a pained-sounding simulated orgasm from Mr Watts. Immediately following was the delightful Yue Guang – Clair de Lune, a spot-on satire of traditional Chinese music which provoked many a titter throughout the hall. Pulling these disparate strands together was Chin’s own distinctive sound: harmonies that live somewhere between early and late Ligeti, subtle use of orchestral colour and occasional, rather lovely, forays into the realm of beauty. Perhaps it did not need to be quite as long or as disparate as it was, but Cantatrix Sopranica was one of those rare world premieres you would actually like to hear a second time; for that, at least, Unsuk Chin deserved the tremendous applause she received.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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