George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Antara (1987) [19:44]
Pierre BOULEZ (B. 1925)
Dérive (1984) [6:58]
Mémoriale (1985) [4:46]
Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939)
Song Offerings (1985) [18:20]
Penelope Walmsley-Clark (soprano)
London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin
rec. 9 May 1989, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (Antara); November 1988, The Maltings, Snape, U.K.
NIMBUS NI5167 [49:50]
George Benjamin spent six weeks of the summer of 1984 working at Pierre Boulez’s famous musical research centre in Paris, IRCAM. Stephen Walsh’s excellent notes tell us that each evening, as he emerged into the outside world, Benjamin passed a group of Peruvian street musicians, and was fascinated by the sound of their panpipes. A year later he returned and, using the powerful computer facilities available at IRCAM, synthesised the sound of panpipes to allow the virtual instrument to be played from a digital keyboard. The acoustic instrument’s limitations –a limited number of notes available, held notes impossible and so on – were thus eradicated. The fruit of this labour was Antara – the Inca word for panpipes – scored for two keyboards, two flutes (doubling piccolo), two trombones, two percussionists and eight string players. As always with Benjamin one wonders how he manages to conjure up such a range of sound from so unpromising an ensemble. Also typical of him are the moments of near stasis and near-inaudibility. The synthesised panpipe sounds are unmistakeable, but the listener is not transported to South America by this remarkable work. It is music very much of its time, with little conventional melodic or harmonic development, but even those allergic to contemporary musical techniques will find this, I think, an easy listen, and perhaps one of the best points to start an exploration of this most fascinating and rewarding composer.
The programme continues with two short works by Pierre Boulez. In this case even Stephen Walsh’s eloquent prose is inadequate to convey clearly the compositional processes behind these two pieces. Whether one chooses to understand them – or try to understand them – or not, the music itself is pretty much what those already exposed to Boulez will expect: meticulous attention to sound, often ravishingly beautiful, but with few audible signposts and nothing much in the way of conventional forward movement. Mémoriale, composed in memory of the flutist Lawrence Beauregard, is a fully notated version of one movement from …explosante-fixe …, an earlier work which had featured aleatoric techniques. Dérive is a work in two parts, clearly signalled by Stephen Walsh and gratifyingly audible in performance, the first a series of chords, the second allowing rather extended melodic lines to flower. In both works the musical material is subjected to Boulez’s highly personal and extended serial technique, but a wry smile is probably a fair reaction to the explanation of how the composer used the name ‘Sacher’ as a basis for his musical material. The problem I have always had with the music of Pierre Boulez – though not with Boulez the conductor – is the almost total absence of human sensibility, despite the surface beauty. To describe the music as cold or arid is inadequate: in fact, the human being seems simply absent. This is pretty much the case here, though there are tantalising glimpses in the closing moments of both pieces.
There is no electronic element in Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, despite the composer’s IRCAM experience. It is a fully notated, short song-cycle for soprano and eight-piece instrumental ensemble. The words are four love poems by Tagore, sung in the poet’s own English translation. In the first, the singer awaits her lover, breathlessly, excitedly trying to fend off sleep. The second, a rapid, scherzo-like piece, deals with light and dancing. The third song deals in oblique detail with the relation between earthly and heavenly love, whilst death is the surprisingly welcome wedding guest in the final song. Throughout this short cycle there are moments of remarkable beauty. The scoring of the first song, and the illustration of the word “sleep” are two such moments, and the closing passage of the third song, where the words invoke the notion of “perfect union” is as beautiful a confection as you will hear anywhere in modern music. The close of the cycle, too, is a magnificent piece of aural imagination, and profoundly moving; my only disappointment is that the composer, rather in step with the times, has the singer speak a few lines in this song: ineffective and unnecessary.
Song Offerings is, in my opinion, a small masterpiece, but the work’s difficulty, plus its unconventional forces will mean that live performances are bound to be rare. Buy this disc, then; it is worth the expense for this work alone. No praise is too high for Penelope Walmsley-Clark, whose beautiful voice soars and leaps in step with the fiendishly difficult, yet superbly conceived, vocal line the composer has given her. The words are printed in the booklet, which also features a list of participating instrumentalists. This is an interesting roll-call: one of the keyboards in Antara, for example, is played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and the list of viola players includes one Sally Beamish. Music-making of this quality is not to be found every day, and the composers will surely have been profoundly grateful to these players for the confidence and extraordinary skill they brought to these performances.

William Hedley
A celebrity ensemble interprets a collection of outstanding music from the 1980s. Not to be missed.