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George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Into the Little Hill (2006) [34:48]
Flight (1979) [9:51]
Dream of the Song (2014-5) [19:38]
Hila Plitmann (soprano); Susan Bickley (contralto); London Sinfonietta/Benjamin (Into the Little Hill)
Michael Cox (flute, Flight)
Bejun Mehta (countertenor); Nederlands Kamerkoor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Benjamin (Dream of the Song)
rec. July 2013, The Warehouse, London (Little Hill); May 2012, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (Flight); September 2015, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Dream)
NIMBUS NI5964 [64:17]

George Benjamin belongs to the middle generation of British composers. He first came to notice when his orchestral work Ringed by the Flat Horizon was performed at the Proms when he was only twenty and still a student. Like the slightly older Oliver Knussen (born 1952) he is a slow worker and a fastidious craftsman. He was a pupil of Messiaen and his musical language is more clearly linked to the French tradition, and to Stravinsky, than to English composers, though I fancy he has listened to Britten and Maxwell Davies. His most recent large-scale work, the opera Written on Skin has been widely performed and acclaimed (review review). He has been nobly supported by the recording company Nimbus, who have not only allowed him to record most of his works but have even allowed him to make new recordings of works they already had on their books. This is in conjunction with his developing career as a conductor, incidentally not only of his own works.

The first work here, Into the Little Hill, falls into this category, as there is a previous recording with the original performers still available (review). It is a short opera, based on an allegorical updating of the story of Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The town is suffering from a plague of rats and the Minister wants shot of them. The libretto, by Martin Crimp, is full of contemporary references, of which by far the most disturbing is the implicit comparison of rats to refugees. This in context is meant to be sympathetic and I can see the point, but it is an unhappy analogy, to say the least. There are two soloists who play all of seven roles between them. They are accompanied by a chamber orchestra full of unusual instruments: there are two basset horns (alto clarinets with an extended lower range), a contrabass clarinet, a cimbalon, a mandolin, a banjo and, in one movement, a bass (not an alto) flute. The opening is amazingly close to the Stravinsky of Les Noces but Benjamin moves from this to develop his own language. Despite my reservations about the libretto this is a gripping, even a thrilling work, and I have listened to it several times with increasing pleasure. Each time it seems shorter. Although it is listed as an opera, the short length, small cast and unusual orchestration mean that we are unlikely to see many stage productions and, as with some roughly comparable works by Stravinsky – I am thinking of Renard and The Soldier’s Tale – it is more likely to succeed as a concert work. It certainly works simply as a sound recording.

Between this and the other major work we have Flight, for unaccompanied solo flute. This is an early work and you can hear that Benjamin had been listening to other works for solo flute, notably Debussy’s Syrinx and Varèse’s Density 21.5, which it seems to echo in places. You can also hear his enthusiasm for Messiaen as there are evocations of birds. He says it was ‘inspired by the sight of birds soaring and dipping over the peaks of the Swiss Alps.’ It is an attractive work, though for me it was slightly too long.

Dream of the Song is a recent work, a song cycle for countertenor with female chorus and orchestra. Benjamin was particularly interested in combining the countertenor with the women’s voices, which are in the same register ‘but so different in timbre and sound and expression,’ as he says. The words are taken from Jewish poets from Muslim and Christian Spain in the medieval period, set in English translation, interwoven with passages from the twentieth century Spanish poet Lorca, set in Spanish. The orchestra has only a few wind instruments, but has some tuned percussion and two harps alongside the normal complement of strings. Benjamin points out that all the poems ‘share a rumination about the passage of time and mortality.’ This time I have no reservations about the texts, which seem splendid, even in translation, and the music is ravishing. It is reminiscent – at a considerable distance – of Berlioz’s songs for chorus and orchestra, though there is a powerful climax in the third song.

The performances of the two larger works are directed by Benjamin himself and are obviously authoritative. Hila Plitmann and Susan Bickley work well together in Into the Little Hill and the London Sinfonietta revels in what it has been given to play, whether in the rumblings of the deep clarinets or the twang of the cimbalon. The countertenor Bejun Mehta has a wonderfully smooth and creamy voice, and the contrast with the women of the Nederlands Kamerkoor, singing confidently in English, must surely realise the composer’s intentions in contrasting them. Michael Cox, who plays Flight expertly, is the flautist of the London Sinfonietta and also plays in Into the Little Hill. I have not heard the earlier recording of Into the Little Hill, and its couplings are different so Benjamin fans will want both. I strongly recommend this and give thanks to Nimbus for their enterprise.

Stephen Barber



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