George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Palimpsests (2002) [19:40]
At First Light (1982) [19:03]
Sudden Time (1993) [14:37]
Olicantus (2002) [4:04]
Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Modern Orchestra/George Benjamin; and Oliver Knussen (Olicantus)
Rec. live, 6 March 2003, Flagey, Brussels (Palimpsests); 27 July 1995, Mozarteum, Salzburg (At First Light); 28 February 2000 (Sudden Time) and 17 January 2003 (Olicantus), Alte Oper, Frankfurt
NIMBUS NI5732 [57:26]
I first became acquainted with the music of George Benjamin through another Nimbus disc, NI5505. Sudden Time features on that disc too, but it was a vocal piece from 1990 that particularly struck me, Upon Silence. For mezzo-soprano and ensemble of viols, and composed for the group Fretwork, this is a remarkable setting of W. B. Yeats’ poem Long-Legged Fly. The work achieves what might be thought impossible, setting a near-perfect text in a totally unexpected and apparently unsuited musical idiom, whilst not only complementing it, but extending and transforming it in such a way that the musical setting becomes quite another work of art, leaving the original poem intact and undisturbed, available to the reader just as before. Fretwork play wonderfully – and the disc includes a second performance of the same work in an adaptation for seven strings – but I was especially in awe, and am still, at the astonishing, stunning performance by Susan Bickley.
The rest of that disc is taken up by instrumental and orchestral music, and it took me much longer to come to terms with these. Vocal music, in any event, given the presence of text, is probably easier to appreciate than purely instrumental music, and the other works certainly revealed their secrets more slowly, and required more effort on my part. But the effort was more than justified, as it also was with the present disc. George Benjamin’s music is exquisite, perfectly fashioned, like jewels, but not always easy on the ear, and not always easy to fathom.
The earliest work here, At First Light, is written for an ensemble of fourteen players. Such is the acuity of the composer’s ear, however, that the listener is amazed at the variety of colour achieved. The work begins in near-inaudibility, and the tiny first movement is composed of fragments, scraps of ideas, long held notes and twitters, that never really blend into anything tangible. The other movements are longer, the second more dramatic, the third calm, with fragments of melody and ravishing instrumental sonorities. But this is music with few audible signposts. Sudden Time confirms that impression. This is a work for large orchestra, but there is very little in the way of melodic writing, little to latch on to, being composed instead of fragments once again, moments of harmony and ever-changing sonorities. There’s not much sense of pulse or tempo either, the overall feeling being of music which is slow, though emphatically not static. On the other hand there is certainly a sense of progression – in terms of time – in the last third of the piece, and it closes with an extended melodic passage for solo violin, though I think it would take a little while to learn to whistle it. The ending is very abrupt. The music simply stops.
Palimpsests, of which this is the first recording, opens with what the notes refer to as “an antique-sounding canzonetta” played by a choir of clarinets, antique-sounding in the sense that Berg’s harmonisation of the Bach choral in his Violin Concerto is antique sounding. This work features rather more surface drama than the earlier two, with considerably more louder and faster-moving music and a general feeling that the writing is more extended, less fragmentary. The ending, uniquely of the four pieces, is loud. The final work on the disc, Olicantus, was written as a “surprise fiftieth birthday present for composer-conductor Oliver Knussen”, though any idea of levity that might be encouraged by the pun in the title is dashed when one hears this sombre piece, composed for fifteen players of low-pitched instruments, anything but celebratory, but of a striking, grave beauty.
Oliver Knussen conducts the short piece dedicated to him, the composer the others, and it is difficult to imagine how the performances could be any finer. These musicians are, in short, perfect advocates for this remarkable repertoire. The recorded sound is excellent, and although these are live performances the disc is not marred by applause. The booklet notes, by Stephen Walsh, are very erudite and deal extensively with what might be termed the philosophical aspects of the music. As such they are not much help as a listening guide, but it is difficult to imagine how any words might be. But don’t be put off. Try this disc for yourself, with open ears and an open mind.
William Hedley

Remarkable, challenging music in outstanding performances – highly recommended.