George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007.
First is the brilliantly imaginative Viola, Viola, performed here by Geneviève Strosser and Garth Knox, where the two violas weave a tapestry seeming to contain a great many more lines than would seem plausible from a duo, and the range of types of material is impressive. It’s followed by another string work, the Three Miniatures for Solo Violin, that, for all their brevity, explore a fairly range of ideas; i find the first, ‘A Lullaby for Lalit’, and last, ‘Lauer Lied’ to be the most engaging, beautifully delicate and disarmingly pointillistic respectively. They’re performed by Jagdish Mistry, who in fact gave the world première of ‘A Lullaby for Lalit’ back in January 2002 (Irvine Arditti gave the first performance of all three miniatures a couple of months later).
To finish, Into the Little Hill, Benjamin’s updated version of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The chamber opera made the headlines recently, when a scheduled performance at the Royal Opera House ended up taking place in the bar, following a power cut (article here). It’s somewhat difficult to follow the drama adequately without the words (Martin Crimp wrote the libretto), and of course without the visuals it makes for a rather peculiar experience, but the overall impression is quite a gripping one; the 40-minute duration seems about right given the simplicity of the narrative. Benjamin’s musical language here is strikingly austere in some ways, and thankfully lacks (as much of Benjamin’s work does) the rather generic “Faber sound” that seems to afflict so much of the music from that particular stable. Hilary Summers’ mezzo-soprano is notable for its curious resemblance to a counter-tenor, giving it an unnerving ambiguity that seems to suit the story’s inherently unsettling allegory. Ensemble Modern was directed by Franck Ollu, the same performers who gave the first performance in Paris in 2006.