Shadowlines *
Viola, Viola
Three Studies for solo piano
Piano Sonata
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) *

Tabea Zimmermann & Antoine Tamestit (violas)

George Benjamin (piano)

Sonata recorded in 1980; Three Studies in 1986; Viola, Viola and Shadowlines in 2003 – all at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
Duration: 70 minutes
Reviewed: December 2004
The most recent work here, Shadowlines (2001), is avowedly the by-product of Benjamin’s cathartic encounter in the mid-90s with Webern’s Symphony (Op.21). In fact the now not very fashionable influence of Webern can be heard in Benjamin’s music generally, not so much in its brevity but in the concentration of musical thought. Like Oliver Knussen, Benjamin is incapable of writing a single note if it cannot be justified in terms of a work’s harmonic and structural trajectory. The result to date is a small clutch of hard-won masterpieces often separated by years of troubled gestation.
So small in fact that the bulk of them are currently residing on four Nimbus CDs, Benjamin having been adopted in the early 80s as ‘house composer’ to Nimbus by its maverick founder Count Alexander Numa Labinsky (“I love Mars Bars, I hate Wagner and I want to record your music” is reported to have been his opening pitch).
NI 5643 gathers together the orchestral and vocal-orchestral works which established Benjamin’s wunderkind reputation in the 80s, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, A Mind of Winter, At First Light and Antara (along with its tiny electronic satellite, Panorama). The award-winning NI 5505 groups the orchestral Sudden Time and Three Inventions with the early Octet and two versions of the exquisite W.B. Yeats setting “Upon Silence”. The recently released NI 5732 (reviewed separately) features Benjamin’s most recent orchestral work, the masterly Palimpsests, along with compelling new versions of At First Light and Sudden Time plus Olicantus, written in tribute to Knussen.
The release under discussion here, NI 5713, assembles Benjamin’s three substantial piano works and the appropriately named viola duet, Viola, Viola. As well as Shadowlines, there is the Three Studies from the early/mid 80s and the very youthful (in every respect) Piano Sonata of 1979. Apart from this last, these are very much works in which we hear Benjamin’s musical language stripped to an essence and largely without the colouristic aspects which are a dominant feature of his orchestral music.
Indeed, Shadowlines is subtitled “six canonic preludes for piano” and is the result of a thorough investigation, through the prism of Webern’s strict serial canons, of the recondite art of canonic technique, which sits at the compositional crossroads of ‘inspiration’ and ‘perspiration’ (the young Maxwell Davies had similarly felt the need to refract his ‘own’ material through a matrix of canonic writing as a means of developing his professional skills as a composer). Thus Benjamin talks of the technical processes that more or less predetermine his choice of notes, including his own invented “encoded” and “elastic” canons. Suffice it to say that, just as with Bach, whilst the resulting music could keep scholars and musicologists busy for a lifetime, it also works simply as music. Although apparently self-contained in themselves, the six preludes do form a very satisfying whole, pivoting around the powerful and climactic fourth and the deeply impressive passacaglia which comprises the fifth and which accounts for almost half of the work’s 15-minute duration. The sixth prelude has the feeling of an epilogue, whilst the first three have an episodic, preludial function. I particularly liked the second prelude, marked “Wild”, in which the right hand hammers out a kind of warped fanfare against a gentle pentatonic wash in the left hand (Debussyian pianism being a palpable influence).
Shadowlines was written to a commission from Betty Freeman for Benjamin’s friend and collaborator the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He delivers a blistering performance that one cannot imagine being bettered. Aimard’s fusion of technical virtuosity, intellectual probing and tactile sensuousness is at once the vehicle and the generating source of this music. The recording is clear and spacious with a tendency to become glaring in very loud passages.
Benjamin himself is soloist in the other two piano works and is a scarcely less impressive advocate of the music. The performance of the Three Studies is a previously unreleased studio recording from 1986. These studies were written separately and only later grouped together, and, as with Shadowlines, each study sets itself a restrictive premise and then proceeds to get as much out of that premise as seems musically possible or desirable. The ‘Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm’, by some way the most substantial of the three, is a thoroughly successful exploration of the possibilities of the short-long iamb. Its attraction lies not only in the playful ingenuity with which Benjamin goes about this, but also in the way he filters allusive tonal-modal elements into the work’s otherwise clangourous discourse. ‘Meditation on Haydn’s Name’ does exactly what it says on the label, consisting entirely of varied soundings of a single chord. Benjamin’s rendition perfectly captures its gently rippling beauty. ‘Relativity Rag’ approaches the soundworld of Ravel’s piano writing to an unusually close degree and is a sort of faux ‘menuet antique’ applied to a more modern musical dance form, but then deconstructed in a manner highly typical of the time it was written. The recorded sound is more than serviceable but slightly plump and unfocussed.
The Piano Sonata, written in 1979 when Benjamin was still a student of Messiaen, is easily the most whiz-bang, splashy, extrovert work in Benjamin’s catalogue. It is defiantly and exuberantly a young man’s music (characteristics it shares with the Octet of the same year) and, along with the first orchestral pieces, it contributed to an ultimately false impression at the time that Benjamin was a ‘natural’ composer out of whom music poured more or less fully-formed, the ‘new Britten’ no less. It also in turn pointed to his subsequent blockages, when he instinctively reacted against the apparently easy and superficial surface glitter of works like the Sonata and sought a much deeper musical means of expression in which every note would have to earn its keep.
For all of its prodigiously high energy, much of the rapid figuration in the Sonata amounts to arpeggiated versions of what are in reality slow-moving (if beguiling) harmonic progressions. Never again would Benjamin throw away notes with such gay abandon. That said, listening to it as an exhilarating experience is not unlike listening to a 19th-century virtuoso piano piece. The most characteristic writing is perhaps to be found in the central Lento whose exhaustive investigation of the inner workings of a single-chord structure is suggestive of the French ‘spectralist’ composers such as Murail and Grisey whose work Benjamin has done much to champion. This is a reissue of the 1980 analogue recording that was hitherto available as a CD single. Both performance and recording hold up very well.
Textural relief is provided by the inclusion of the much-performed Viola, Viola of 1997. Out of what is probably the world’s least enticing instrumental pairing, Benjamin creates an intensely dramatic work, at once a totally abstract musical argument (or is it a discussion?) and an exploration of the timbre of the viola. As with the viol writing in “Upon Silence”, there is the illusion of hearing many more performers than there actually are, through the near-constant use of multi-stopping, harmonics and voice-leading. A stunning piece. The performance by Tabea Zimmermann and Antoine Tamestit is quite simply a tour de force.


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