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George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Shadowlines * [15:12]
Viola, Viola ** [10:22]
Three Studies for solo piano *** [21:41]
Piano Sonata **** [22:31]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) *; Tabea Zimmermann (viola)**; Antoine Tamestit (viola) **; George Benjamin (piano) ***, ****
rec. 16-18 December 2003, 8 February 1986, 29 March 1980 (sonata), Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales. DDD *
NIMBUS NI5713 [69:46]

Experience Classicsonline

Here is a prize of a CD. It contains three works for piano and one for two violas by George Benjamin, who is 50 this year (2010). Benjamin is usually thought of as a symphonist; so it's refreshing to hear his music on a smaller scale. Although Shadowlines and Viola, Viola are also available elsewhere - on a DVD featuring Aimard, Euroarts 2055798; and on Bis 1379/80 celebrating the Viola Space festival in Japan respectively - this CD is really the place to find really good examples of this intriguing corner of Benjamin's work played in exemplary fashion.
It's also a CD with a history - in that the recordings it presents fall either side of the crisis which Nimbus experienced, and from which it's now thankfully recovered. It's a testament to the expertise and determination of the company's production team that the recording qualities should not only be as high as they are, but also be as consistent … the Piano Sonata is an analogue recording.
In fact, the four pieces play in the reverse order of their composition. Benjamin describes the influences behind Shadowlines (the most recent) as being his exposure to Webern, specifically his Symphony Op. 21. Shadowlines is indeed a spare piece; yet it's rich in sonorities and tonal palette. Dedicated to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, this is its première recording. For distillation and purpose, beauty and sensitivity, this is a rendering which could hardly be bettered.
Viola, Viola is the shortest piece on the CD, at a little over ten minutes. It has an interesting premise which is very well realised by Zimmermann and Tamestit: that the viola is of a 'retiring' temperament, and usually plays 'second fiddle' to stringed instruments with larger personalities. Benjamin employs a variety of techniques from counterpoint to what almost amounts to brute force - at the opening of the piece, especially - to convince the listener that they are experiencing an entire string ensemble. Repeated and careful listening to these two soloists wholly in tune not only with the instrument's possibilities, but also with Benjamin's superb understanding of string sound in this context reveals more, though: melodic development, the way that duos really work when sharing and contrasting material, and how vigour that's 'agnostic' of any instrument's characteristics nevertheless can only be experienced through and thanks to that very instrument.
Three studies for solo piano were actually composed over three years, between 1982 and 1985. They represent the kind of challenge that is so typical of Benjamin. After the success of such now iconic orchestral pieces as his Ringed by the Flat Horizon, the young composer wanted to impose his own constraints and meet the resulting challenge - musically, not in terms of form. In the Three Studies, as in the even earlier Piano Sonata, which ends the CD and is its longest work at a minute or two more than the originally separate Three Studies, it's Benjamin himself who plays. In both cases, we hear a truly remarkable interpreter in his own right. He would obviously understand the works' challenges, why they exist and how, and to what extent, they are met. But beyond that he can communicate them with no overstatement or indulgence. Indeed, with a fair degree of detachment.
The music is spare here too. It's not 'minimal' in the technical sense of the word. But highly economical in the tension which each piece sets up between form and emotion. Yet we need know nothing of the theory or historical context against which the Sonata and Three Studies were conceived to enjoy the focus, the intensity yet also intervening humour which characterise them.
This is a highly satisfying CD. It may come as a revelation to those less familiar with Benjamin's small scale instrumental music. For those put off by the 'meteoric' élan which has sometimes tended to obscure the substance of Benjamin, the music on this CD is a useful and very enjoyable corrective. Focused, intense yet highly successful given the self-imposed curbs and checks which Benjamin used, it's music to return to again and again.
The recording quality - as has been said - is high. There's almost a sense of a live concert, particularly in the case of the Sonata and Three Studies. The booklet is highly informative, concise and packed with relevant fore- and background on compositions, composer and players. A tribute to the Nimbus label in every respect!
Mark Sealey

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