George Benjamin Masterclass with Helen Wilson (flute) and Soh-Yon Kim (violin) & Jennifer Lee (piano)
Jubilee Quartet [Tereza Privratska & Alma Olite (violins), Stephanie Edmundson (viola) & Lauren Steel (cello)]
Leanne Cody (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 January, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
If it is the beginning of January, it must be PLG. The Park Lane Group’s New Year Series week duly got underway here with two programmes featuring several young artists performing (mainly) contemporary music and adhering to the format devised two years ago, which has undoubtedly helped to revitalise these longstanding and necessary recitals.
The early-evening recital focussed on music by “Frontline Composer” George Benjamin, who was on hand to hear the performances and offer a number of informal yet apposite comments – enabling the performers to outline the basis of an interpretation. Soh-Yon Kim and Jennifer Lee made a valiant attempt at the 25-minute Sonata for Violin and Piano (1977) with which the then teenage composer gave notice of his creative intent, though the relatively prolix follow-throughs of the three movements were rather left to fend for themselves as the musicians struggled to establish audible cohesion over their wide-ranging content. More successful was Flight (1979), in which Helen Wilson steered a compelling course through writing that draws on the expected models (thus Debussy, Varèse and Messiaen) to potent effect. More than the earlier Sonata, it indicates where Benjamin was headed at the outset of his career and it remains a necessary part of his output. Hopefully Wilson will be able to re-present it at a future recital: in the meantime, she returns to PLG as soon as this Thursday.
Benjamin also had an input into the second recital, which opened with the UK premiere of Night Dances (2013) in which Edward Nesbit combined four finely differentiated dance measures in an eventful piece as subtle in its tempo modulation as it was arresting in its atmosphere. It left a more positive impression than the world premiere of Imaginings (2013), a PLG commission from Barcelona-born Blai Soler juxtaposing six short pieces that seemed less contrasting in mood and texture than perhaps was intended – there being little sense of an overarching or intensifying trajectory as the likeable if anonymous components ran their respective course. Both works were ably rendered by the Jubilee Quartet. Coming between them, Leanne Cody got to grips with the six canonic preludes comprising Benjamin’s Shadowlines (2001), and if their more demonstrative aspect seemed over-projected, she is hardly the first pianist to fall foul of the Purcell Room’s notoriously flattened-out acoustic which served to rob this music of its undoubted finesse.
In the second half, Cody sounded much more at ease in her two selections. As the most recent body of piano music to enter the repertoire, György Ligeti’s Études are often analogous to aural conjuring tricks – not least (and hardly inappropriately) the tenth of them, Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), whose coruscating brilliance largely came through here. Joe Cutler’s On the Edge (1994) poses very different challenges, and while Cody sounded happier with the bell-like chords and filigree textures at either end than the often brutal passagework at its centre, there was little doubting her commitment to its uncompromising course. Pianist and string quartet then joined forces for Schumann’s Piano Quintet (1842) – unlikely fare in this context, but worthwhile in enabling them to take on the standard repertoire that will likely dominate their future music-making. At its best in the simmering intensity of the slow movement and in the effervescent scherzo, this account occasionally faltered during the outer movements, though the contrapuntal dexterity of the finale’s coda was nimbly surmounted.