George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Ringed by the flat horizon (1980) [19.50] 1
A mind of winter (1981) [9.15] 2
At first light (1982) [19.45] 3
Antara (1987) [19.37] 4
Panorama (1985) [2.24] 5
1 Ross Pople (cello); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder
2 Penelope Walmsley-Clarke (mezzo); 23London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin
4 London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin
rec. 1 Maida Vale Studios, London, 13 December 1985; 2 St Giles Cripplegate, 11-12 November 1986; 4 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9 May 1989; 5 IRCAM tape
NIMBUS NI 5643 [71.09]
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 landscape.
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 its welcome.
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
Sterling work in communicating Benjamin’s intentions to the listener; superlative in Ringed by the flat horizon.