Another day, another première—this time, it was the first London performance of George Benjamin‘s Duet, for piano and orchestra. In the solo rôle is the unsurpassable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and he precedes Benjamin’s work with a rendition of György Ligeti‘s “Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale”, the second piece from his enthralling Musica ricercata series. It’s a piece that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, and Aimard superbly taps into its dark, profoundly unsettling mood. Built upon disarming repetitions and extreme dynamics, it’s unlike almost anything else in the piano repertoire (except, perhaps, for the sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya); substantial way beyond its mere three-minute span, the piece suffuses the air with mystery, establishing a dense, almost choking atmosphere for Benjamin’s Duet, which follows without a break.
It immediately presents itself as a very different entity from Ligeti’s, its opening two-part invention (the title already in evidence) practically cutting a rug by contrast. As for the rest, it immediately and consistently disappoints; timbrally, it’s all very conventional, even predictable, once again exhibiting Benjamin’s penchant for chiming percussions, muted trumpets, whooshing harps and the like that clearly (for him) together concoct something ‘exotic’. Structurally, it’s all over the place, melodic fragments presenting themselves when the mood takes them, assorted gestures (by turns, sharp and blunt) forming the rest of the musical fabric. This is the essence of the egregious ‘Faber sound’, where superficial fluff and froth become the focus, all hopes of something substantial dashed, almost at the outset. In fairness, Duet was capable of one genuine surprise: a moment right before the end, when it inexplicably bursts into a weird kind of neo-faux-Tudor fanfare; this did at least provoke a smile, so perhaps that’s saying something.