At First Light *
Olicantus * #
Ensemble Modern *
Ensemble Modern Orchestra
Oliver Knussen #
Palimpsests recorded at the Ars Musica Festival, Brussels on 6 March 2003; At First Light recorded at Salzburg Festival on 27 July 1995; Sudden Time at Alte Oper, Frankfurt on 28 February 2000; Olicantus at Alte Oper, Frankfurt on 17 January 2003
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: December 2004
CD No: NIMBUS NI 5732
Duration: 57 minutes
Nimbus continues its loyalty to George Benjamin with this first recording of his most recent orchestral work, Palimpsests, coupled with second recordings of two of his major works from the 80s and 90s. This on top of the disc of piano and viola works on NI 5713: a rare bumper crop for any living composer. But the level of achievement is rare in musical terms also, for Benjamin is the very opposite of what Nicholas Maw calls the “tombola” composer. Every piece is the result of long and arduous effort and nothing is left to chance.
The two-movement Palimpsests, written for the London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez, is a case in point. The first movement was a relatively short 75th-birthday present for Boulez and it might well have remained that way, but evidently Benjamin felt the material had not yet exhausted its potential and he went on to produce a second, longer movement which revisits and develops material from the first whilst also going on its own journey.
A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the text has been superimposed on an earlier text in such a way that both are visible (Berio has similarly explored the musical analogy). Benjamin’s ‘text’ is the archaic polyphony for clarinets that opens the first movement. This is immediately overlaid with whirling, cascading gestures that recur in different forms throughout the work. A tumultuous brass chorale bursts through and causes the music to fall apart completely but the clarinet material reappears, now transformed into an orderly but quizzical canon. Highly foreshortened versions of the chorale punctuate the second movement, which eventually issues into a strange dance with high woodwind ensnared by growling brass. Crammed with marvellously inventive detail, Palimpsests strikes me as being one of Benjamin’s very finest achievements and this live recording with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra from the 2003 Ars Musica Festival in Brussels bristles with commitment and collective virtuosity.
It is still unusual for a contemporary orchestral work to receive a second performance, let alone a second recording, but At First Light was first recorded in a performance by the London Sinfonietta and Benjamin (NI 5643) and Sudden Time with the London Philharmonic and Benjamin (NI 5505). At First Light in particular has been taken up by ensembles throughout the world and fully warrants an alternative reading on disc. Inspired by Turner’s painting “Norham Castle, Sunrise”, it has a white-hot molten intensity that in some respects make it Benjamin’s most ‘extreme’ statement to date but also a textural exquisiteness that renders it totally accessible. The London Sinfonietta’s performance is a study in brilliant white and aquamarine blue which achieves almost frightening levels of directness in the more elemental passages of the work. Ensemble Modern’s live recording has a broader colour palette with a more vivid bass spectrum, giving greater ‘contrast’ in tele-visual terms. Brilliant as the EM performance undoubtedly is, on balance I slightly prefer the Sinfonietta rendition, which achieves a greater luminosity in the harmonic stirrings at the beginning of the final movement and more radiance in the unexpected glimpse of the ‘paradise garden’ just before the end.
With Sudden Time, on the other hand, the new version seems to me to be preferable by some way. The original recording with the London Philharmonic served the piece well but palpably has a cautious, studied ring to it when compared with this Ensemble Modern Orchestra performance which is altogether better articulated and forms more of an organic whole. The new version also shaves one minute off the performance time, which in a work of around fifteen minutes is a significant difference.
This is noticeable in particular at the beginning of the piece, which has a perceptibly more urgent thrust and at the very end where the solo viola and tabla music is more purposeful, less rhapsodic than in the earlier recording. The piece itself remains one of Benjamin’s strangest creations, a hall of mirrors as painted by Escher in which no gesture ever leads to the place you thought it was travelling toward. Both recordings of both works are very much in the Nimbus house style, “natural” and open – not something I personally relish with orchestral music but well achieved on its own terms.
The disc ends with a bonus in the form of Olicantus, Benjamin’s contribution to the Knussen fiftieth-birthday celebrations, and here conducted by Knussen himself. In fact, this delectable little piece recently appeared on the first release of the London Sinfonietta label in a version conducted by Benjamin, but to my mind Knussen’s slower, more languorous approach finds its way more directly to the heart of the piece.