Knussen
Two Organa
Cole
Penumbra [LSO/RPS commission: world première]
Boulez
Improvisations sur Mallarmé 1 & 2 (Pli selon Pli) §
Benjamin
Shadowlines [world première] †
Messiaen
Oiseaux exotiques †

Valdine Anderson (soprano) §

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) †

LSO Chamber Orchestra
George Benjamin
65 minutes of music (so a colleague informed me at the end) in a concert lasting just over two hours: it had to be a contemporary music concert! Typical of the London Sinfonietta, with extended (at times overly elaborate) stage changes? But no! This was the London Symphony Orchestra Chamber Orchestra (the Barbican diary listing as the London Chamber Orchestra, probably an insult to someone, whether the LSO’s reduced players or Christopher Warren-Green’s lot, recently reinvented). The time was eaten up not by boring stage changes (these were expedited with unobtrusive speed – Sinfonietta please note), but by an elongated interval and three spoken introductions from composer/conductor, George Benjamin.
In effect these only reiterated what Benjamin had written in the programme notes, but so charmingly self-effacing is Benjamin that you wished – for once – for more. When the season-long By George! festival was being discussed, this chamber concert had always been part of the plan and one wonders if it would be possible for the LSO to persist with a contemporary strand in future seasons featuring reduced forces.
The first of Oliver Knussen’s Two Organa seems timeless as its assumption of an early, but now rare, form of polyphony might indicate. Written using only ’white’ notes it is as perfect a piece of music as can be imagined, and in Benjamin’s hands it becomes more sensuous and ageless than from the composer himself. The second is more biting in harmony and development, refracted, perhaps through the expressionism of Berg.
Boulez’s first two Improvisations sur Mallarmé from Pli selon Pli were introduced by Benjamin who scythed through the difficulties of Mallarmé’s poetry by giving us the simplest description of how Boulez’s exquisite soundworld could be heard to indicate a dying swan, trapped on frozen water in the first, and the a-rhythmic rustling of a lace curtain (indicated by maracas) in the second. With the performing area cleared of all instruments but percussion, Boulez’s mesmeric accompaniment to the vocal line, here taken by the expert Canadian soprano Valdine Anderson, swathed the words in brittle, bright and scintillating sounds as befits Mallarmé’s words. With Benjamin’s enthusiastic introduction and his unobtrusive and persuasive advocacy of the music I got closer to this Boulez piece than I ever have before.
The concert ended with an equally persuasive account of Messiaen’s 1956 score (pre-dating the Boulez by just one year), Oiseaux exotiques. Here pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard took the stage for the second time and, with typical astounding bravura, played the taxing solo piano part from memory, ensuring his total involvement with the LSO’s committed musicians (no strings) under Benjamin’s concise direction. Benjamin has an intriguing conducting style, exacerbated perhaps by the lack of a jacket (like the players, he was in shirtsleeves), which allows rhythms to seemingly wriggle down the length of his body. The music seems to flow through him to the orchestra in a way that a cursory glance at his clear beating might belie. One of Messiaen’s earliest score to be completely swathed in his unique notation of various birdsong, this brittle, chirping, chirruping, iridescent and irrepressible score is one of the best introductions to the composer. And there could be no better performance than this one, which brought this invigorating concert to a close. Benjamin signalled each player for applause.
And the two world premières? The first, by Jonathan Cole, still in his early 30s, was the result of an LSO commission with additional funds from the Britten-Pears Foundation.Penumbra is shadowy and fragmentary, the music essays “an unknown place filled with the dark reflections of an unknown past,” so twisting the dictionary meaning of the word (more simply ’a region of partial darkness’ or, I suppose, ’twilight’ – although we are explicitly told that it is midnight). Pleasing in its instrumental dexterity, with a penchant for deep instrumental colours (for a bassoonist like myself, always something of a pleasure), this short piece was – perhaps inevitably – overshadowed by the other pieces. Compared to Benjamin’s excellent notes for the rest of the programme, Cole’s brief three paragraphs were almost more elliptical than Mallarmé’s poetry.
As to Shadowlines (see how the connecting threads came together in the programme?), Benjamin has returned to the piano after some two decades and written a set of six pieces loosely based on the canon, not a musical building block that has been of much interest to him before now. Typically, in this piece written for his long-standing friend Aimard (they met when Benjamin first went to study at the Paris Conservatoire, in 1976) Benjamin immediately turns that snippet of inspiration on its head, so that – for example – in the second piece, the angry right hand statement of the canon is matched by the most subtle and quiet left hand.How it is possible to play I don’t know, but characteristically Aimard achieved it with not only the confidence of accuracy but also an aura of ease.For those that only know him as a contemporary music expert, it is worth noting that Aimard’s recordings of all five Beethoven Piano Concertos, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are just released on Teldec.
The next By George! concert is on 1 April, with Benjamin conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in his At First Light together with works by Ravel, Goehr, Webern and Stravinsky.

 

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