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.

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