Jubilation – The Music of George Benjamin [Final Concert; Philharmonia Orchestra]

George Benjamin
Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe
Ringed by the Flat Horizon

Samuel Coles (flute, alto flute & bass flute) & Gordon Hunt (oboe)

Philharmonia Orchestra
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 May, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

George Benjamin. Photograph: Michiharu OkuboThis was the closing concert of the Southbank Centre’s Weekend festival devoted to music by George Benjamin. London-born in 1960, Benjamin studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Olivier Messiaen (composition) and Yvonne Loriod (piano) and furthered his learning with Alexander Goehr at King’s College Cambridge.

To his own music Benjamin elected to include works by György Ligeti (1923-2006) in the programmes. In this final one Ligeti’s Double Concerto (1972) enchanted with its luminous textures, the music hypnotic whether fragile or rapid. Ligeti’s orchestration excludes violins, and the two (excellent) soloists (the seductive alto-flute the first instrument to be heard) are ‘first among equals’ delighting in the textures created by the ensemble. Lontano (1967), for a large orchestra excluding percussion, is similarly allusive, instruments at the extremes of their registers, the mood tense, the sounds indeed ‘from afar’, music sinister and hypnotic, the ear gratefully teased.

Beginning the Weekend’s home stretch, the evening opened with Jubilation (1985) composed by Benjamin for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra – and guests: an extravagant outing for large orchestra together with extra brass, children’s choir, steel band, an ensemble of recorders, and a synthesiser. On this occasion the Philharmonia Orchestra was joined by the Kent County Junior Choir, Centre for Young Musicians, Bromley Youth Music Trust, Whitstable Recorder Ensemble and Kent Youth Recorders, and a host of other youngsters. Jubilation is a soundscape of stellar sonorities, quite elaborate, with Benjamin carefully sifting the demands of the music to match abilities. Yet, for all its diverse palette of sounds, Jubilation didn’t quite sustain attention; and it seemed a huge effort of preparation on behalf of many organisations and personnel for ten minutes of music, most of the participants not hanging around for the rest of the concert.

A different story with the other Benjamin pieces played, both rich in invention and incident and leaving a lasting impression. Palimpsests (2002) – a much-used manuscript, the original writing only surviving in fragments – was composed for the LSO and conducted then by dedicatee Pierre Boulez. The orchestration is interesting in that a full complement of brass is pitted against just eight violins and eight double basses (there are woodwinds, if no oboes, and percussion, too), yet everything is lucid. Palimpsests (there are two, playing continuously), whether solemn or active, the very opening suggesting an organ blowing through past-centuries, exudes constant fascination, embracing delicacy and being devastatingly sonorous.

Even more lasting (in terms of its vintage) is Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), written by Benjamin when aged 19. It put him on the musical map when first-conducted by Mark Elder and then taken up by Boulez. It remains a significant work and sounded remarkably fresh under the composer’s direction. It was inspired by a photograph of a thunderstorm over the New Mexico desert and also an extract from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Ultimately a composer’s age is immaterial, for Ringed by the Flat Horizon is a great piece, it’s as simple as that – evocative, expansive, agitated, and potent in its force and graphic description. From within the orchestra, Timothy Walden’s cello solos were superlative.

Throughout, the Philharmonia Orchestra responded with alacrity to George Benjamin’s assured conducting and his ‘inside knowledge’ regarding his own music and that of Ligeti.

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