The maverick founder of Nimbus Records, Count Alexander Numa
Labinsky - who also recorded as a singer with spectacularly
peculiar results under the name of Shura Gehrman - approached
the then nineteen-year-old George Benjamin in 1979 to propose
that his company should issue recordings of his music. The first
three tracks on this reissued CD were the results of that approach.
At the time the composer, who looks extremely young in the booklet
photos, had just completed his studies in Paris with Messiaen.
His association with Nimbus has continued since that date –
indeed, all three of the CDs exclusively devoted to his music
have been issued by that company.
Labinsky was an eccentric, but his instincts with regard to
Benjamin were sound. Ringed by the flat horizon may
have echoes of Messiaen in it, but it moves well beyond that
influence to produce some peculiarly haunting sounds. The composer
conjures a vision of an impending storm which envelops the landscape
and then passes into the distance. A similar affinity for nature
is apparent in A mind of winter, a setting of a The
Snow Man, a poem by the American Wallace Stevens full of
winter imagery. The solitary Snow Man is depicted here by a
muted piccolo trumpet, stunningly played by Paul Archibald.
Penelope Walmsley-Clarke sings well and with impeccable intonation,
but without the text printed in the booklet her words would
be almost completely unintelligible. This is - for once in a
modern piece - not altogether the composer’s fault. In this
piece we hear multi-divided string glissandi used not
as a clichéd effect - as so often in modern music - but quite
legitimately to suggest the icy wind which blows around the
At first light is another depiction of nature, this
time of dawn as depicted in Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise.
Here the atmosphere is more strident and tense, less contemplative,
and ultimately more unsettling. The piece breaks into three
movements, but in all honesty there is little distinction between
the first two. The influence of Messiaen is by this stage almost
wholly absent, and one regrets its disappearance. The abrupt
changes in colour and texture appear unmotivated. Gareth Hulse’s
oboe (given individual credit in the booklet) sounds positively
uncomfortable at around 1.40 in the second movement, squawking
venomously in its highest register. One feels a loss of direction
in this music – both in a diminution of focus when compared
to the earlier works, and an increased use of various orchestral
effects without motivation from the overall vision. In the final
movement the music suddenly settles into a more sustained mood,
with Hulse’s oboe now enfolded within the textures and a more
definite sense of purpose. The stroke of the tam-tam towards
the end brings a magnificent climax, with the instrumental sounds
afterwards fading into infinity. However it is not altogether
surprising that the composer himself seems to have recognised
that his inspiration was beginning to run at a lower voltage,
since after the successfully received first performance of this
piece he lapsed into the first of the periods of silence that
have marked his subsequent career.
After some five years he returned to the orchestral medium with
Antara, inspired by the sounds of Andean pan-pipes
which Benjamin heard playing in the square in front of the Pompidou
Centre in Paris. Here the sound of the traditional instruments
is imitated by two flutes, played by Sebastian Bell and Richard
Blake, and two computerised keyboards, played by Ichiro Nodaïra
and no less a player than Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Here one rediscovers
the focus which was so largely missing in At first light.
The composer does not specify any programme for this music,
but the whole piece immediately conjures up an atmosphere redolent
of the Incas, at once pastoral and barbaric. The eruptions by
rebarbative trombones and multiple anvils are strikingly present.
These lead to some stunning passages for the computerised keyboards
which nevertheless derive from the original pan-pipe material.
The recording here is rather further forward than in the earlier
tracks on this CD in the rather dry acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth
Hall, not entirely to its advantage. The anvils sound a bit
tinny and lack the ideal clangour. When this track was originally
issued coupled with works by Boulez and Jonathan Harvey it won
the 1990 Gramophone Contemporary Record of the Year
award, and not surprisingly.
The short tape of Panorama here receives its first
release to commemorate the composer’s fortieth birthday. The
composer describes it as a study for Antara, and it
precedes this on the disc. The electronics are used to conjure
up the sounds of the pan-pipes, bouncing the sounds around the
aural spectrum to entrancing effect. The piece does not outstay
The composer provides his own booklet notes, and they are both
helpful and informative. One is never left in doubt as to the
intentions which lie behind the music. The various performers
do sterling work in communicating these intentions to the listener,
but the palm must go to the BBC orchestra under Elder who are
superlative in Ringed by the flat horizon.
Paul Corfield Godfrey