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George BENJAMIN (b.1960)
Written on Skin (2012) [91:29]
Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2012) [12:05]
Barbara Hannigan (soprano) - Agnès
Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo) - Angel 2/Marie
Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor) - Angel 1/The Boy
Allan Clayton (tenor) - Angel 3/John
Christopher Purves (baritone) - The Protector
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/George Benjamin
rec. live, 7 & 14 July, 2012, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France
Text in English included
NIMBUS NI5885/6 [59:53 + 42:42]

George Benjamin first attracted attention with his orchestral work Ringed by the flat horizon, written when he was twenty, when he was the youngest composer ever to have a work performed at the Proms in London. He is a fastidious craftsman and has written a small number of jewelled works which have been highly regarded in the new music world. He has been well supported by his record company, Nimbus, which has recorded many of them, some of them twice. He came to wider attention with Written on Skin, his second opera, which has attracted a chorus of praise and numerous performances. I must admit that I did not care for it at first, partly, I now think, because of the complicated staging, so I am glad to have another opportunity to consider it.

The story is based on a legend associated with the Provençal troubadour Guillem de Cabestanh. According to this, he was the lover of the wife of Raimon of Castell Rosso. When Raimon found out about their affair he murdered Guillem, plucked out his heart and had it cooked and served to his wife. When he told her what she had eaten she walked to a window and let herself be killed by falling to the ground. The story is best known from the version in Boccaccio’s Decameron, where it is the ninth tale of the fourth day.

In the version which Martin Crimp has devised for the libretto, the husband is unnamed, but simply called The Protector, a real misnomer as he is a domestic tyrant who regards his wife, Agnès, as his property. Her lover is The Boy, who is not a troubadour but a manuscript illuminator. Fine manuscripts were written on vellum, which is calfskin, hence the title. The Boy’s part is written for a counter-tenor, presumably to emphasize his youth. The Protector engages The Boy to create a book celebrating his family. Agnès and The Boy become lovers. At first The Boy denies this to The Protector but Agnès wants him to tell the truth, thinking it will punish him for treating her like a child. The Protector kills The Boy and then has the grisly meal served to Agnès, who jumps from the balcony when The Protector moves to stab her. Agnès’s sister Marie and her husband John are minor characters.

So far, so straightforward, but the story is complicated by the fact that The Boy, Marie and John also double as twenty-first century angels who set up the action and occasionally intervene in it with twenty-first century references. In the climactic scene Agnès and The Protector seem to be playing parts, complete with third-person references and stage directions. I must admit I don’t see the point of this and at first I found it very off-putting but now I can live with it.

The action takes places in fifteen scenes divided into three parts. Each scene is quite short and has its own special character, with interludes separating them. This makes it sound rather like Wozzeck, and there are considerable similarities, though I should say that the score is a good deal more beguiling than that work. Though there a few violent outbursts, much of it is quite restrained, which would make Pelléas et Mélisande a more appropriate comparison. The orchestra has a reduced number of strings but includes some exotica, including mandolins, a bass viol, a contrabass clarinet and a glass harmonica. This last, best known from a couple of pieces by Mozart, has an ethereal sound, some way between a flute and a celesta; Benjamin gives it a prominent and complicated part. The score is altogether fascinating: often very beautiful, with a good deal of variety and pace. The vocal lines are attractive too, and are never drowned by the orchestra. The tragic tale unfolds rapidly, and only the roles of the angels can be hard to make out. Despite this the work is very compelling, in fact a masterpiece.

This recording is taken from two performances of the première production in France, sung in the original English. The principals all seem admirably inside their roles. Christopher Purves conveys real menace in the unlovely role of The Protector, while Barbara Hannigan is radiant as his unfaithful wife. It seems strange to call the lover The Boy and to cast the role as a counter-tenor, but Bejun Mehta copes well with it. The composer himself conducts; he has, in fact a considerable reputation as a conductor and not only of his own works. The engineers have done very well to manage the balance between the singers and the orchestra and the recording sounds well.

The coupling is a one movement concertante work, in which the piano and orchestra engage in a friendly dialogue. There is little virtuoso writing and the timbres of piano and orchestra are interestingly contrasted and combined. Applause is included for this work but not for the opera.

There are two booklets. The first gives a note from the librettist, the text of an interview with the composer and biographies of the performers. The second booklet gives a synopsis, the full text and the track listing. Note that you can also get a DVD of the London production from Opus Arte (review), but you may share my reservations about the visual side and be happy to hear the work on CD. Musically it is very rewarding.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Mark Sealey (Recording of the Month)

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