Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.  The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had beeen planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca, (much of this reviewed by me - please see links below). Hrůša, a close associate of Bělohlávek, conducted the Czech Philharmonic's memorial to Bělohlávek in September 2017 (Dvořák Stabat Mater). The performance of Dvořák Requiem on this recording was made in Spetember 2017 at the start of the Dvořák Festival in Prague, also in honour of Bělohlávek. Although Bělohlávek himself was only able to record the Dvořák Biblical Songs op 99 (with another Bělohlávek regular, Jan Martinik) this recording is effectively a monument to Bělohlávek, and a worthy successor to the rest of the Decca series. Hrůša's Requiem, capturing the full emotional intensity of that memorial concert in the Rudolfinium, Prague, where everyone on the platform and in the audience had personal knowledge of Bělohlávek and what he meant.

Requiems commemorate the dead, and for those who believe, encapsulate the central tenet of Christianity. Dvořák's religious beliefs were profound, shaping his Requiem as a testament of faith. The Kyrie, by far the longest part of the first section, is a funeral march, the pace measured and dignified.The strings create a reverential hush,  but one lit by luminous, transcendental light. This reflects the text :  "Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis". The promise of eternal light, even in the depths of anguish.  "Kyrie eleison" thus has context.  In the second Requiem aeternum, a solo emerges and the pace picks up : lines pulsate, as if in anticipation.  

The Dies Irae marks a transition : powerful chords underline a sense of violent change. A trumpet calls forth, the "tuba mirum spargens sonum" whose baleful sound heralds the Day of Wrath that marks the End of Time and the mass resurrection of all who have died. Thus the tenor part, with its prayer-like intonation, and the fierce outbursts from choir and orchestra. The plaintive Quid sum miser states that mankind is weak but salvation lies through "Rex tremendae majestis". With the Recordare, Dvořák's identity re-asserts itself in the loosely Bohemian personality inn the orchestral line, here highlighted by the sensitivity of Hrůša and this orchestra who understand it so well. The soloists, Michael Spyres, Jan Martinik, Ailyn Pérez and Christianne Stotjin form an ensemble like a garland.  With the Confutatis maledictus and the Lacyrmosa, (particularly beautiful singing and playing) this constant interplay of turbulence and tenderness creates inner momentum, intensifying a sense of forward thrust. 

This underlines the structure of this Requiem, the first part building up to the second.  With the Offertum, the bass part, haloed by harps and choir, suggests depth and profundity, the female soloists and tenor enhancing this new mood of confidence. "Sed signifer sanctus Michael reporesentet eas in lucern sanctum". Vigorous rhythms replace the funereal tread of the first Requiem Aeterum. the trumpet now introduces a Hostias where the soloists ring out pure and the chorus (Prague Philharmonic Choir) very well parted. With the Sanctus, yet another change. As this Requiem reaches its conclusion, its spirit transforms.  Even the Pie Jesu is affirmative, multiple voices together welcoming Eternal Rest.  This Agnus Dei is a wonder, the luminous textures of the first Requiem Aeternum now illuminating the singing and playing transcedent glory.  Delicately paced diminuendos create the image of heavenly peace. Truly "lux perpetua luceat eis". And truly Hrůša's Dvořák Requiem truly establishes the significance of the piece in our appreciation of the composer himself. 

Dvořák's Biblical Songs op 103 enhance the impact of the Requiem. The songs set texts from the Book of Psalms. The vocal line is dignified, even austere, emphasizing the enduring power of these verses which have inspired people for thousands of years. The orchestral line is restrained, letting the voice ring out with Biblical portent. Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic have the Dvořák idiom in their genes, bringing out the distinctive rhythms and character, which enlivens this performance without dominating. I'm very much taken with Jan Martinik, whose voice has natural richness and colour, and delivers with understated power. He worked very closely with Bělohlávek and the Národní divadlo and regularly featured in Bělohlávek's numerous concerts in London. Definitely a recommended recording, even though there is much competition. 

In this performance of Dvořák's Te Deum op 99 recorded by Hrůša in December 2018, the brass are bright and assertive, the rhythms confident and distinctively idiomatic. There are echoes of the composer's ninth symphony, but it is essentially a celebratory showpiece for large orchestra and massed voices, and presented here with great verve. The baritone is Svatopluk Sem, another Bělohlávek favourite and Národní divadlo regular, and the soprano is Kateřina Kněžíkov. Much is made of the high profile premiere in 1892, but the sad truth is that Dvořák was never paid.  When a cheque finally arrived, it failed to clear.  Oddly enough that fits in with the idea of a Requiem. No matter what worldly status might bring, at the end we all end up the same so what you believe might make a difference.

Please also see more about the Bělohlávek Decca series

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Prince Nico Mbarga and his Sweet Mother

A few years back  someone did a "life satisfaction" survey and Nigeria came out tops. Despite the poverty and disorder !  People chase material wealth but where do real values come from ?  Back in 1976 Price Nico Mbarga wrote Aki Special, an instant hit fusing  West African music from the time with traditional styles. His introduction expresses things which might explain how some people retain good values despite the chaos of  the world around them.

"This life is wonderful, but don't be proud because you have it, it comes from God" (ie fate)  "Almighty" he sings after a short pause "Pickin-o good-o, if you get, if you no gettem.... . "Money is good-o, money good-o, we know, if you get, but don't laugh, many people no get's...but if you no gets, make you no cry, first time is the best. Opportunity comes but once in this world. Who knows tomorrow, my friend? Nobody knows tomorrow...."

Prince Nico Mbarga (1950-1997) didn't make any money from his hits, not even from his Sweet Mother the all-time iconic African classic because the business model there is different.  Though records sell, they;re often pirated copies and artists don't necessaruily get royalties. Sweet Mother was played everywhere and adapted naturally into many cultures, since it captures the spirit of women who keep society going, no matter what. Strong women suffer, but they aren't selfish.  For sure women are oppressed and don't have equal opportunities, but their values keep the world going. In Africa, women do everytrhing - farming,  business, child care etc  and still somehow they carry on.  Prince Nico didn't live cocooned in luxury. Born in Ikom in Nigeria, he lived in Cameroon, where his father came from, at 17 was forced to leave start all over again in Nigeria, where his mother came from.  He stayed in Ikom more  or less permannetly, not being a model husband or father, but middle class western values do not apply to everyone.  At the age of 47, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Sweet Mother begins with a swanky guitar riff - very 70's ! - but the words are down home  traditional.  "Sweet Mother, I never forget you, the way you suffer for me - yeah, yeah. When I get get cry, my mother go carry me, she says, my pickin-o, stop, stop, so you no cry again-o".  "You can get another wife, you can get another husband, you cannot get another Mother, so "

A friend said. "Pickin-o means child in West African pidgin, and may come from the Portuguese pequeno. Prince Nico was very family oriented, so to him having children was maybe more valuable than having money."

 
Please read Sami Kent's article HERE,which is by far the best researched and informative of all, written by someone whose perspective is not western but African, which makes all the difference. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

My contribution to stopping COVID - Pappano, Britten, Vaughan Williams

As my contribution to not spreading COVID, knowingly or unknowingly, I refrained from going to what would otherwise have been a perfect programme for me, Antonio Pappano conducting Britten's Violin Concerto (soloist Vilde Frang, whom I've heard doing this piece before) and Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 6. at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. But in times like these that's when background counts.  No concert ever exist in limbo. Context matters, absolutely. Pappano's programme is particularly relevant in these times, too, because both pieces deal with almost apocalyptic situations, so bleak that even the power of music cannot articulate.

Britten, like so many others knew all too well what the rise of Hitler meant for Europe. Our Hunting Fathers, his op. 8, was a specific response to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which dehumanized Jews, gays, intellectuals and "modernists". Indeed there are very specific references embedded in the text.  As a protest against cruelty and madness, Our Hunting Fathers is so powerful that it perhaps says more about listeners still who don't get it.  Franco's victory in Spain, supported by Nazi aeroplanes and strategists intensified that sense of despair.  For many, it was traumatic, as if European civilization was doomed.  Britten's Violin Concerto is a product of that period of intense despair.  The Violin Concerto was never meant to be easy listening. It takes moral courage to write a deeply uncomforting statement like this, and know it might never be understood.  Perhaps this is why it has only relatively recently entered its status in the canon of major works by a composer who thought deeply about society and the human condition.

From a hushed string introduction, the violin rises, against an understated but ominous background of percussion and brass. Despite the lyricism of the violin line, the idea of war lurks, with menace.  Hollow pizzicato suggest agitation.  The second movement has the character of nightmare scherzo, a battery of strings, brass and percussion battling with the violin, which remains detached.The tumult is shaped carefully, bringing out the huge, angular blocks of sound, booming bassoons,  spikey details in the strings, rumbling drums, creating contrast with the violin. In the cadenza, Frang has in the past lit up the dizzying diminuendo : not a defeat so much as a “tactical withdrawal".  In the passacaglia, descending notes from the brass moved in careful procession. Now the violin line is haunted by other strings, mumuring as if heard from afar. Eventually an anthem builds up, the brass no longer against the soloist, but leading forwards.  Tense, brittle figures suggested gunfire, but the violin remains uncowed.  A particularly full-throated tutti section,  almost a chorale, violin and orchestra united in common cause.  From the strings, a suggestion of guitars : the ghosts of the dead in Spain, rising again, led by the violin, marching quietly onward.

Vaughan Williams would not be drawn on what his Symphony no 6 might be "about", but that in itself suggests how difficult it was to express the traumas he'd witnessed.  Of his third symphony, he  explicitly stated that it was "wartime music", inspired by his experiences as a stretcher bearer in France. "It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted". Thus the sixth has no cosy title to throw the unwary off track. The onus is on the listener to listen sensitively, and understand the piece from within. To hear music as no more than sound is to deny emotion and humanity. Last year, Salonen conducted the introduction so the brass seemed to scream in a communal wail of anguish. The quieter "pastoral" themes on strings, woodwinds and harps felt haunted, swept away in the tumult.  In the second movement tension built up steadily, the three-note ostinato figure at first muffled, the cor anglais offering a moment of contrast before the relentless fusillade of brass and percussion. This  gives context to the saxophone solo in the scherzo, enhancing its strange, alien nature. Its jazziness is seductive, yet it suggests disorder, the breaking-up of safe structural certainties. The bass clarinet served as lament.  The final movement, with its ambiguous pianissimo, suggests not peace, but perhaps a numbness so great that even music cannot fully express. Unlike the third symphony, there's no room even for wordless voice. Muted flutes in unison, rather than the fanfare of brass with which the symphony began.




Saturday, 14 March 2020

Defeating COVID-19 by human decency - Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker

Simon Rattle (Photo : Doug Peters)
Disastrous as COVID-19 is, can we learn from it ? At the Philharmonie, Berlin, Simon Rattle conducted Berio and Bartók to an empty hall, streamed internationally free of charge. Inevitably sneers from those who still don't know there's a pandemic around, and above all, cannot understand the role of music in difficult times.  It wasn't just any concert : of course there was no encore or applause.  An empty house brings home the message : millions might suffer and die. We can't take life or anything else for granted. And even those who survive will be scarred. (and lose their livelihoods in the economic downturn).  Concerts are live experiences, influenced by circumstances around them. To dismiss the human side of communication is to dismiss the whole point of music.

As Rattle said, there are connections between Berio Sinfonia and Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.  Both deal with memory, and the multiple threads that influence the way composers and listeners absorb their response to life and to music.  Berio's Sinfonia covers a sprawling range of human experience, questioning the way we process  that experience in music.  It is such a seminal work that it gets done very often indeed, and most people know it well, but it's not at all easy to pull off properly. (there are some lousy ones).  It's a Rattle speciality. Of the numerous performances I've heard,  this was a high point : sharper and tighter, extremely focussed.  Berio's  singers were English, establishing the tradition of British-sounding accents, which is relevant because it distances the voices from the German, Italian and other influences in the work. The soloists Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart are "English" enough but also "musical" enough to fit in with the music.  Even if this wasn't a special event concert, this performance would be up there near the top.

Rattle's introduction to Bartók Concerto for Orchestra was typically understated but that made it all the more powerful.  In this world it's not all me, me  me.  Good peoiple don't fight over toilet paper and abuse strangers.  Possibly even worse than the virus is the way it's revealed how deeply entrenched xenophonia is in this world, so endemic that even seemingly normal peopleshow their evil side.

The performance is superb, as to be expected since he's done this dozens of times, but make the time to listen to what Rattle says.  In these times of crisis, this is utterly relevant; humanity and  empathy for others is all the more important. That's why msuiciands are sacrificng their livelihoods and carrers, so the virus doesn't spread. No-one should have to die because some people want to go out.

In 1940, Bartók was a refugee in a new land, cut off from his creative roots. He was despondent, and broke. He was unknown and unwell. Smasll boys used to tease him in the street, as small boys do, alas.  He became ill,  and might have died in obscurity like so many others in his position. Fortunately, Serge Koussevitzky cared about him, aranging that he be treated with  a new experimental drug then only available to military personnel. One man helping another : passing on the flame as in Berio's Sinfonia. The Concerto for Orchestra  was another act of kindness, since it gave Bartók an income and new inspiration.  

Once he began writing, his mood lifted as if he were rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar "Hungarian" themes in the piece, it's not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and of the right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle understands the granite-like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seems to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work, alternating with moments of expansive feeling.  Rattle negotiated this constant flux, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change. This concert's being repeated on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall regularly, in the absence of regular programming. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

COVID 19 and music - the implications ? Gürzenich Orchester Köln


When the world seems headed for lockdown - at least in places where COVID 19 is being taken seriously,  what are the implcations for classical music ?  Overall the economic impact will be huge and long term too.  This is not the time for inciting race hate nor for scoring politicsal points.  Viruses happen, and mutate all the time - we're all on a learning curve. So respect science, not ill-informed media hysteria. Unfortunately COVID 19  has come at a time when anti-science barbarism seems to be taking over from basic common sense, and not just in medicine, politics and environmental change.

To a great extent  lockdown, limiting exposure and self-quarantine does work, as has been proved. As long as the basic infrastructure  operates, such as health services, transport networks, supply chains, etc, the world will not collapse into chaotic violence. .And that means people co-operating and working together to achieve the best pssible balance.  In classical music circles, venues are being closed, concerts cancelled, musicians laid off, with all the knock-on effects that brings. Many orchestras and opera houses work to very slim profit margins and freelancers don't get a safety net. In China, where millions are staying home, there's been a boost in streaming and broadcast. This keeps musicians paid, and keeps organizations afloat for when things get better. Plus, millions sitting at home, bored witless, have something different to listen to. In a country like China, where music is valued, that has the potential to grow audiences better than the dumbed-down marketing practices we see elsewhere.

As ever the Gürzenich Orchester Köln is way ahead with innovation. They're livestreaming too. Sure it's expensive, but it keeps things going. Last night I listened to them live  , with Sylvain Cambreling conducting and Antoine Tamestit as soloist in Berlioz: Les franc-juges, Charles Ives Three Places in New England and the highlight, Berlioz Harold en Italie, which Tamestit has done numerous times -  its basic core violist repertoire, and a speciality of the Gürzenich Orchester Köln.  Cambreling's been around forever too, very much a known quality. Top star attractions and free of charge too !  Listen again on the orchestra's YT channel for the repeat. So we're stuck with COVID 19 but thanks to technology we're no longer trapped in small-town isolation. Everyone can listen in and show support!



Sunday, 8 March 2020

Women in Music, on International Women’s Day

It's International Women’s Day which these year does matter more than ever, when the forces of small minded represssion are gaining power, all over the world, in many forms.  ears ago a young upstart advised me "Read more Feminist books". Uh? Like billions of others have done for millenia and are still doing today, I've learned the hard way. It isn't just about middle class western values.  Caring about people, as people, enabling them to have decent lives, these are the values that underpin the issues. And that's also why there's a backlash from those so insecure that their fragile egos need to be supported by hurting others. Real men don't need that.  At least half the world's population is female: We should be celebrating women who do what they do and their best, whoever they are.

But this is a music blog so I'll try to stick to music. We can, and should, be listening to women in music all the time.  It's impossible not to listen to musicians who are women : so many excellent soloists and ensemble players! It is an issue that sometimes they aren't paid the same as men, but they exist.   Making it to the top as a conductor or music director is tough, but that's tough anyway, and there's enormous nastiness in the business, not least of which comes from fans who don't actually listen.  It's about the music, not the ego of the listener. And there have been women composers for hundreds of years, not just in western classical music.  We need to know, and to keep learning. No bandwagon gestures, no instant fixes. No-one plays, writes or conducts with their anatomy, and that includes men. Only when gender is no longer an issue will we have reached common sense.

Picking out favourites  is invidious because good musicians are always themselves, and distinctive.  Over the years I've written a lot about a few special people, like Clara Schumann, whose greatest contribution was her pioneering role as a performer, travelling all over Europe, arranging her own gigs, transport, accommodation, publicity etc. at a time when there were few celebrity artists who supported themselves.  She's the equivalent of Chopin or Paganini, re-shaping the reception of classical music in the 19th century.  Yet still some think she needs promoting for the work she wrote to please Robert.  Hail thee, Clara, a working mother who was a breadwinner, who made Robert's career possible.

And Vítezslava Kaprálová, whi died aged only 25 yet left behind a considerable body of work.  From childhood, she came into contact with almost every big name in Czech music circles, so perhaps it was inevitable that she was something of a child prodigy. She started writing her own music from the age of 9 and entered the Brno Conservatory aged 15. She moved between Prague and Paris, developing a strikingly independent and original voice. She began conducting in her teens and worked with masters like Vítězslav Novák and Václav Talich. In her early 20's she was conducting the Czech Philharmonic and made a notable impact on her contemporaries, including schoolmate Rafael Kubelik. In 1938, aged 22, she conducted the BBC  Symphony Orchestra in her own Miliitary Sinfonieta (1937). Against the background of Nazi confrontation, it's quite a statement. Fierce, bright brasses suggest defiance, more lyrical passages suggest the endurance of more peaceful (possibly Czech)  values.. The tension between driving ostinato and themes of soaring freedom give the piece considerable sophistication. Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Janáček's Sinfonietta in the cheeky, rhythmic fanfare towards the end.  It may well be Kaprálová's humorous way of acknowledging quirky nationalist spirit.  Is the Military Sinfonietta "women's work" ? Of course not : it's a daring take on Janáček's Sinfonietta, by a young composer whose father was a Janáček specialist. She knew what she was doing. I've written a lot about her songs and piano works, which are a lot less famous.  (click on link below)

And then there's Rebecca Saunders, one of the best living British composers, which is saying something. Needs no special pleading : she's that good.  Plenty to find more about her on the net, and many opportunities to hear her music. Saunders  once described her method as being like looking at a sculpture from different angles, in different light, against different backgrounds. Yet Traces(2006,commissioned for Staatskapelle Dresden) operates on a much deeper level: hence the double basses, sounds as darkly sonorous as it's possible to get with string instruments,legato that curves and stretches and lifts off suddenly, to slide along from a different angle. It's like touching a work of art, "feeling" it intuitively. As a blind person might see, visualizing by instinct and emotion, surprisingly sensual.  In the second part,it changes tack. Sharper, brighter textures now, very high strings, though the same sense of sweeping curves, sculpting shapes in swathes of sound. It's like glissandi but created by a group of different individuals playing in such connection they move as a unit, stretching the palette beyond what a single instrument could do. Brass and woodwinds form similar blocks, so there's a sense of great forces rotating, revealing different aspects of sound as they move, leaving in their wake ripples of unpitched percussion. Towards the end the keening sounds stretch out, becoming so pure and clean the music seems to float into infinity.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Festival of Friendship : George Benjamin : A Duet and a Dream


George Benjamin conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 5 March, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in Olivier Messiaen Le merle bleu and Benjamin Duet for Piano and Orchestra, Oliver Knussen Choral, Janáček Sinfonietta and Benjamin Dream of the Song. Interesting programme with obvious connections and some more provocative.

This concert celebrates that special bond between Benjamin, Aimard and Knussen, whose presence will be felt by many, and that of Messiaen, too.  Aimard was one of Messiaen's "sons", studying with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod aged 12, so close to the composer he was like family.  Benjamin joined Messiaen circles when he was 16, hence their special relationship.  At Aldeburgh, and for decades before, Aimard, Benjamin and Oliver Knussen were stalwarts. I remeber an occasion when Knussen was driving Benjamin to London, waved off by friends saying "No stopping off at Little Chef on the way". Little Chef too is now long gone.

A very thoughtful choice as introduction, with Knussen's Choral (op 8, 1970-72). Choral isn't chorale, so much as an exercise in using instruments as vouces operating as a small choir.  It dispenses with high strings altogether. Four double basses march against counter processions of trumpets, horns and mournful trombones. Flutes and percussion cry out against the dirge. Eventually the different parts of the orchestra coalesce, not in unison, but in chorus.  More "chorus" in Messiaen's Le merle bleu No 3 from Book 1 of  the Catalogue des Oiseaux, written for Mme. Loriod.  Aimard would have heard her playing this, with the composer himself listening. He understands it thoroughly "from source". At Aldeburgh he performed the whole series at the right times of the day and night.  I woke in time  to greet the dawn chorus at 3 am. This consideration is important as it enhances the atmosphere, since Messiaen sought to recreate the whole environment from which the birds come. Le merle bleu is one of the more exotic sections,with scintillating moments of display, yet joyously natural, since birds sing from sheer exuberance.

More congeniality : Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2008) which Aimard premiered at the Lucerne Festival. Benjain has written "With its vast range and virtuosic capacities the piano is in its own right almost the equivalent of an orchestra. So this Duet is an encounter between two equal partners, partners whose capacities, however, diverge in numerous essential ways. The piano can traverse over seven octaves with the greatest ease and, with the help of the sustaining pedal, accumulate harmonies containing literally dozens of notes. These are feats with which no orchestral instrument can compete. And yet every note of the piano begins to die away immediately after being struck, a characteristic so different from the legato capacities of string and wind instruments. I have attempted to cross the divide between the soloist and the orchestra by finding compatible areas between them, specifically by dividing the piano into a few distinct registers with timbral equivalents in the orchestra. At the same time the piano remains an alien figure in the orchestral landscape and often treads an independent path through instrumental textures that can seem intentionally oblivious of it. The orchestra employed is somewhat reduced, above all by the absence of violins. A certain prominence is given to the piano's nearest relatives in tuned percussion and, especially, the harp".

Of the UK premiere in 2010, I wrote "It's a new departure for Benjamin, his first piece for piano and orchestra. Benjamin’s own notes describe it succinctly. “The piano has an enormous pitch compass and is capable of accumulating complex resonating harmonies, but each note begins to decay as soon as it it is sounded. On the other hand, stringed and wind instruments can sustain and mould their notes after the initial attack”. Thus Benjamin tries to find common ground, restricting the pitch range of the piano, avoiding the higher registers where decay occurs quickly. Percussion, harp and pizzicato create attenuated sounds that meet the piano on its own ground. The piano part isn’t elaborately flamboyant: rather it’s spare, single notes occurring in series, like flurries. It evoked the movement of birds – short, quick jerks expanding into flourish as they take flight. Duet for piano and Orchestra is a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pointilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction. Piano and orchestra warily stalk each other's moves, so Duet is a kind of furtive, circulating dance."  Not all so different from birds calling out to each other.

Though the concerts ends with Janáček Sinfonietta  the big draw for me will be Benjamin's  Dream of the Song.  Benjamin uses texts from three poets, two of whom lived in Granada, the jewel of Islamic civilzation, where education, art and philosophy were honoured.  Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) and  Solomon ibn Gabirol (d. approx 1050) were Talmudic scholars but also fluent in Arabic, for this was a time when Granada was a haven of tolerance in a Europe plagued with prejudice. Benjamin's third poet is Federico García Lorca, the radical modernist  who was assassinated by fascist forces in Granada in 1936.  Songs silenced across the centuries: chances are that the "Dream" Benjamin is referring to is no reverie.


Significantly Benjamin blends and combines the poems into a seamless flow.Strange rustling bell sounds and a cry that sounds like the call of a mullah; "Naked" sings the counter-tenor, the word broken into fragments but reiterated. An epigrammatic opening, opening out, like a window onto another vista. "The multiple troubles of man" The oboe calls out plaintively, its firm, clear sound probing outward as if searching across time itself.  In the central section, the countertenor's lines are haloed by a chorus of female voices intoning Lorca. the words don't really matter. In Andalusian art, images aren't representational but  myriad intricate patterns and colours, in Islamic tradition, epitomized by the Palace of Alhambra.

Thus Benjamin writes patterns of sound which serve the purpose of rhymes.  Brief images float into the foreground in typical Benjamin style "A girl in a garden" elides smoothly, to suddenly switch to terse staccato "tending her shrubs".  a transition built on pizzicato - suggesting the passage of time, perhaps, or splashing water, a concept fundamental to Andalusian metaphysical thought.  The women's voices herald a change of direction - bright, sharp and urgent. Then a brief pause, the silence almost imperceptibly interrupted by quiet tapping.  The male voice returns, singing strangely abstract semi harmony  "Written", the soloist sings but the sound is  magically clean and pure, shining all the brighter against a backdrop of a murmuring horn.  "The stars....." sings the countertenor,  and suddenly, sound seems to break off.  But perhaps that is the point ; the music, the "Dream of Song" does not die with its makers, however doomed their lives.

Benjamin's Dream  of the Song is a milestone. It represents a return to the meticulous craftsmanship of his work before Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin, though the operas are distinctively Benjaminesque.  Although it's written for small orchestra, it's  ambitious  compared with some of his earlier output, utterly assured and confident.