DEBUSSY Prélude de l'après-midi d'un
faune. YU Not a Stream but an Ocean. MESSIAEN Oiseaux exotiques. BENJAMIN
Palimpsest. STRAVINSKY The Firebird - Suite (1919). Pierre-Laurent Aimard
(piano); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/George Benjamin. PROM Royal Albert
Hall, 17 July 2000
The opportunity to hear George Benjamin's interpretations of music of our time alongside a Proms premiere of one of his own most recent pieces was not to be missed. The previous night the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave an acceptable if not eye-opening account of Mendelssohn's St Paul. Under Benjamin they sounded rejuvenated and alive to every challenge.
The performance of Debussy's Prélude was subtle and elusive, with textures delineated cleanly, and no needless lingering. The subtle bed of sound provided by the strings to accompany various woodwind solos was magical. Similarly, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919) was revelatory. Coming from a modernist viewpoint, Benjamin's interpretation made one fully aware that despite the obvious influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky was on the threshold of a breakthrough. The Introduction was pregnant with anticipation, and The Princess' Round Dance was superbly controlled. Only an uncomfortable horn solo (which opened the Finale) marred the experience.
Julian Yu's Not a Stream but an Ocean is Yu's homage to Bach (the title is a pun on Bach's name, which is also German for Stream). Although the piece is fairly extended (about 15 minutes), Yu seems to try to include the whole gamut of his compositional language into this span. This includes post-Romantic melodies over Bachian quotes and predominantly dense scoring. There is certain clumsiness about his musical arguments that made 15 minutes seem a long time.
The Messaien was like falling into the arms of a master. Aimard (who played from memory) was fully at home in this disjunct music. His articulation was crystal clear and the instrumental players reacted with punchy accents. One section emerged as a truly joyous dance, the rhythms as tight as the composer surely intended.
Benjamin's own Palimpsest for chamber orchestra revealed this composer's keen ear for colour. The opening trio of clarinets invoked an organ-like sonority before the music headed off to more violent territory. Surely it was coincidence that the horn glissando near the climax recalled Oiseaux Exotiques
Not for the first time, I was left wishing that Benjamin's list of works was longer.
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