George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Upon silence (1990) [10.24] 12
Three inventions for chamber orchestra (1995) [16.50] 3
Sudden time (1993) [15.38] 4
Octet (1979) [10.58] 3
Upon silence (1991) [10.28] 13
Susan Bickley (mezzo) 12
London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin 3
London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Benjamin 4
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 17 July 1994 2; 28-29 May 1996 3; Royal Festival Hall, London, 22 February 1994 4
NIMBUS NI 5505 [64.54]
George Benjamin looks somewhat older in his photographs on the cover and in the booklet of this disc than he did in the earlier Nimbus collection A mind of winter. He was some fifteen years older than when he wrote the precocious works included on that disc although the Octet on this release pre-dates any of the works in that compilation. Indeed it was the work with which he made his London début in 1979.
That Octet clearly shows the influence of Messiaen. Sketching for it was begun only months after Benjamin had concluded his period of study with that composer. It does not have the sheer overwhelming impact of his similarly influenced Ringed by the flat horizon included on the earlier compilation, but there is plenty of variety of texture. Also the performance is excellent even if the celesta is perhaps a bit too loud to be truly realistic.
This CD gives us two performances of the Yeats setting Upon silence. Both are sung by Susan Bickley. The one with the original scoring is for viol consort. The other is with seven modern strings: the increased number required because strings nowadays only have four strings, while viols had six. The composer informs us that in the later setting he added occasional extra lines, but otherwise the piece remains unchanged. The two settings open and close the disc, but to be honest the differences are so minimal that the duplication is to be regretted. Obviously the scoring for modern instruments makes a more practical consideration for live performances, but in recording terms the original viol consort gives us all that is needed. Susan Bickley’s voice is slightly clearer in the later version, but in both performances we are grateful for the text provided in the booklet as the words are otherwise far from distinct. The manner in which the music echoes the thoughts of the poem are clearly dramatically significant. Benjamin’s settings of the words do not help us to understand the meaning of Yeats’ already somewhat cloudy thoughts. The composer avers in his booklet note that the verses are set “in a syllabic manner”, but the extensive melismata given to the soloist must inevitably render clarity of diction next to impossible even with the best will in the world.
The other two works on this disc comprise the Three inventions for an ensemble of 24 players, and Sudden time for full orchestra. The first of these consists of two short movements followed by a third about half as long again as the previous two combined. The first movement returns us to the musical world of the Octet with a leading solo for a flügel horn nicely played by John Wallace. The second and third movements bring a greater variety of textures, but in all honesty the clearly closely considered music does not cohere to make a unity. The “remorselessly regular” pulse which the composer informs us underpins the texture, and which might help to bind the music together, is not immediately apparent even after several listenings.
The gestation of Sudden time occupied Benjamin for some ten years, embracing one of the periods of ‘writer’s block’ which have afflicted him throughout his composing career. It employs extravagant orchestral forces including a quartet of alto flutes, but the effect is of a transparency more characteristic of chamber music. There is no conventional orchestral doubling, which means that the contrapuntal lines are heard clearly and sometimes loudly, thanks to the analytical acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The composer in his booklet note draws an analogy with the dreamed sound of a thunderclap stretched to an elastic length, and this does help the listener to appreciate the effects that he achieves. Here there is a real sense of unity, and this is the most impressive piece on this disc. The playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer is quite simply superlative, with some stunningly forceful playing in the second of the two continuous movements.
Unlike the earlier George Benjamin compilation, this release comes not only with full notes in English but now also with translations into French and German. By the way, both translations of the Yeats text make substitutions for the poet’s original “long-legged fly” which becomes “une arraigné d’eau” in French, and a “Libelle” – which is something different again – in the German version - which is very poetically free indeed. This is an excellent promotion for a composer whose music has justifiably obtained an international reputation, even if his output remains small.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
An excellent promotion for a composer whose music has justifiably obtained an international reputation, even if his output remains small.