Still [London premiere]
Cantatrix Sopranica [World premiere]
Anu Komsi (soprano)
Pia Komsi (soprano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
London SinfoniettaGeorge Benjamin (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 May, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
“The idea is to create a colourful overview of what has been happening recently in music across the world”. George Benjamin’s introduction to the three-concert series in which he feature – as composer, conductor and pianist – in the first and last of these events; certainly the line-up of composers and musicians featured makes this a truly international mini-series.
This first concert was duly launched with a ensemble piece by the Swiss-born Austrian Beat Furrer: Still (1998) proved a bracing, if undemonstrative study in layers of energy – moving at differing velocities, with their progress made audible by contrasts in their harmonic and rhythmic profile. Just the sort of piece in which the London Sinfonietta has long excelled, and so it proved here.
It was followed by a new work from Unsuk Chin – apparently now at work on an “Alice in Wonderland” opera, and whose Ligetian credentials were productively evident in the song-cycle “Cantatrix Sopranica” (2005). She has described the sequence as an “exploration of the act of singing”, or “singing about singing”, and the range of vocal styles encompassed in these eight songs is matched by the variety of textual treatments: from ‘settings’ of Harry Matthews and Arno Holz, as well as a song from the Tang dynasty, to syllabic assemblages of more or less musical resonance. The outcome is a cycle as entertaining as it is unpredictable: five or six songs might have been enough to demonstrate Chin’s diversity of approach, which is not to decry the virtuosity of the Komsi sisters, nor of Andrew Wattsin projecting this music – orchestrated with a sure theatricality which is never less than appropriate.
After the interval, Benjamin made one of his relatively rare appearances these days as a pianist in his own music. Shadowlines (2001) distils the form-generating potential of canonic writing into six diverse preludes, growing in intensity as they accrue in expressive gestures towards the calm, sublimatory epilogue. Written for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, they bristle with technical challenges such as Benjamin appeared to throw off with aplomb.
Long a musician with a fastidious ear for detail, his conducting latterly seems to have taken on a new awareness of how to control longer times-spans – such as the account of Boulez’s Éclat-Multiples (1965/70) confirmed in some measure. The ten minutes of Éclat constitutes one of the composer’s most compact and iridescent scores – refining his preoccupation with the properties of tuned percussion to a peak of clarity, and to which the twice-as-long Multiples adds an intriguing if discursive commentary with the sound of violas to the fore. Credit to Benjamin for bringing these distinct units into a mutually enriching accord, and for shaping the final minutes of Multiples with such finesse as to confirm the work’s completion as being in its very incompleteness.