International Benjamin – 3

Wood
Autumn Voices
Abrahamsen
Piano Concerto [London premiere]
Benjamin
Three Miniatures for Solo Violin
Grisey
Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil

Carolin Widman (violin)

Anne Marie Abildskov (piano)

Valdine Anderson (soprano)

Sound Intermedia (sound design)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 May, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Each half of the final concert in this George Benjamin-curated series opened with a solo violin piece, complementing and introducing the larger work in either case. In Autumn Voices (2001), James Wood explores the changing coloration of autumn leaves via a systematic descent though violin harmonics – heard against an electronic backdrop of refracted sonorities and birdsong imagery. Slightly too long at 16 minutes, perhaps, though it was realised with precision and sensitivity by Carolin Widman. As were Benjamin’s personable Three Miniatures (2001) – moving from the open-string harmonies of ‘A Lullabyfor Lalit’, via the curt rhythmic energy of ‘A Canon for Sally’, to the lilting gentleness of ‘Lauer Lied’.

It’s heartening that Hans Abrahamsen – his music a regular feature of Sinfonietta concerts two decades ago, but who effectively gave up original composing in the early 1990s – has returned to composition with so impressive a piece as the Piano Concerto (2000). The influence of his one-time teacher Ligeti is evident in the way that the soloist maintains continuity throughout, yet the emphasis here is firmly on the placing of tension so – whether in the explosive brevity of the first and third movements, the accumulation of diverse events in the second, or the strangely distanced ambience of the finale – the music wrests an inner logic out of its outward fragmentation. Lucidly played by dedicatee Anne Marie Abildskov and incisively directed by Benjamin, it clearly deserves a place in the modern repertoire.

And, if quality is the criterion, so does Gérard Grisey’s “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil” (1998). That a work dwelling so intently and profoundly on death and on ‘last things’ has attracted a degree of mystique, given that the composer died suddenly soon after at only 52, is inevitable – if secondary to its worth. The texts evolve naturally from metaphysical to graphic depictions of death, elaborated with emotional directness in the music. The haunting word repetition in “The Death of the Angel” soon intensifies through piercing unisons of voice and trumpet, then the ancient Egyptian roll-call of “The Death of Civilisation” follows – wresting its expressive clarity from semantic mystery. Following the becalmed poignancy of “The Death of Voice”, the apocalyptic imagery of “The Death of Humanity” – itself initiated by the spellbinding interplay of percussion – culminates in the cathartic emergence of a more personal dimension, surveying what went before at a tranquil though intensely ‘felt’ remove.

The work made an indelible impression at its London premiere six years ago, and did so again in this impressive performance – with Valdine Anderson the responsive soloist, and Benjamin inspiring the Sinfonietta in a work he clearly holds in high esteem. Quite likely the last musical masterpiece of the twentieth-century, and the best possible conclusion to a welcome and rewarding series of concerts.

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