Guildhall Symphony Orchestra/George Benjamin

Ringed by the Flat Horizon
Marsyas – for trumpet with solo percussionist and orchestra [UK premiere]
Rhapsodie espagnole

Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet) & Jan Schlichte (percussion)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 28 April, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

The Guildhall Symphony Orchestra comprises students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the entire assembly of over 100 young people and requiring music that had to be testing though not beyond the skills of the youthful performers and needing to engage the players’ exuberant commitment; the music here – all from the 20th century – needed to be more daring than safe.

Ringed by the Flat Horizon was George Benjamin’s first orchestral work, dating from 1980. It’s a mood piece, derived from a photo of a New Mexican desert landscape and lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”. Initially, an eerie tension shimmers, preceding a vast storm. Clear sounds lay in the still, troubled air – piccolo solos, high violins, muted trumpets, a lyrical cello (a resolute John Myerscough) and wooden percussion. The writing is sparse and evocative. Twice, the storm growled and erupted, thick from the force of the whole orchestra in magnificent dissonance. We eventually returned to the opening’s unreal calm – and soft bell chord.

Marsyas is a single movement for virtuoso trumpet, 18 minutes long, dating from 1998-9. It’s a tone poem, one might say, depicting the eponymous satry’s doomed challenge to Apollo, who played the lyre and sang (representing intellect); Marsyas played the double reed pipe (representing sentiment). The victor was allowed to do as he pleased with the vanquished – Marsyas was flayed alive.

Gabor Tarkovi’s trumpet dominated the opening section in a series of jagged melodic declamations, mostly with mute. We also heard rippling interjections from Jan Schlichte’s marimbas. The orchestral accompaniment was sometimes recessed, but two harps and another trumpet stood out – the myth’s competition, maybe. Braying from the brass en masse suggested the judgment of the muses. Then the solo trumpet – now without a mute and blaring – strove against an unleashing from the full orchestra. The music rose to an exciting, extraordinary vigour – virile, unabashed and blood-tingling. Through the noise, Schlichte’s drum beats thrust louder and louder, signifying Marsyas’s annihilation. A violent end, then? No. Rihm favours the version which turns Marsyas’s blood into a river on whose banks fishermen fashion a new music. He gives us back our trumpeter. Now – exuberantly, wittily and roguishly – he plays jazz with cheeky insouciance.

Rhapsodie espagnole was a delight, too. In choosing deliberate tempos, Benjamin offered the orchestra conditions for presenting the music with absolute clarity, dexterous tautness and shimmering poise. The result was unusual and refreshing. Deprived of the rubato and impressionistic haze assumed to typify his style, Ravel sounded precise, virile and strongly rhythmic. His Spanish skies were revealed as a shining brilliant blue. Massed lower strings deftly gave ‘Malaguena’ an agile rhythmic muscle. The lassitude of ‘Habanera’ came from vibrant energy temporarily at rest. The ‘Feria’ exploded into a loud, exuberant, daringly-calculated conclusion. The noise was resplendent.

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