Wald [BBC Radio 3 co-commission: world premiere]
Or voit tout en aventure
Claire Booth (soprano)
Birmingham Comtemporary Music Group
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A family bereavement prevented George Benjamin from conducting this late-night BBC Prom, but Ilan Volkov was available to direct this well-balanced programme of both potential and established modern classics. Oliver Knussen’s Two Organa (1994) falls into the latter category, and not least because it succinctly defines the relative poles of his output: the first, ‘Notre Dame des Jouets’, a transcription for ensemble of a music-box melody whose diatonic simplicity and polyphonic purity hark back to the medieval age; the second, ‘Organum’, a tribute to the Schoenberg Ensemble that embodies the name of that composer within an intricate texture that builds into one of the composer’s most tensile and densely argued pieces – a reminder that, for all the whimsical naïveté evident over much of his output, Knussen’s resourcefulness when dealing with a trenchant musical Modernism is not to be gainsaid.
There followed the first outing for Hans Abrahamsen’s Wald (2009). The Danish composer’s welcome return to original composition a decade ago has seen several major works, of which this new piece is not the least intriguing. Its title referring to the place of retreat of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (and which three decades ago inspired a wind quintet, Walden, with which the new work shares certain motifs), Wald is on one level a theme and variations though, as the former resembles more a sequence of contrasted textures and the latter increasingly overlap and intercut each other, its evolution has an intuitive freedom; writing of an animated rhythmic profile surrounding a phase of magically detached suspense which re-emerges towards the close. Music, then, of a distinctly artless complexity – and to which the musicians of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group did evident justice.
Next came a welcome revival of “Or voir tout en aventure” (2006) by Luke Bedford. This song-cycle sets three texts by Medieval French and Italian poets – the first, a dryly-mocking condemnation of the ‘new music’ which also acts as the title, providing a sceptical refrain between settings where an unrequited love and music as the agent of love are sentiments distinctly of their time yet timeless. A timelessness such as Bedford conveys through the resourceful combining of static – though never uneventful – textures and a soprano line that unfolds monodically above the ensemble. The outcome is music of a contemplative intensity that captures, however understated in its manner, the wider degree of expression which is secreted away within the highly formalized verses – thanks not only to the sensitivity of Bedford’s response but also the expressive acuity of Claire Booth’s contribution.
Rounding off the concert was George Benjamin’s Three Inventions (1995), the first work in which the harmonic and textural intricacy of his earlier music takes on a greater contrapuntal density as well as evincing a wider emotional range. The first two pieces (here run together almost continuously as if to emphasise their cumulative emotional charge) have respectively ominous and visceral qualities that were tangibly conveyed here; qualities, indeed, that the final piece ultimately transcends as it amasses an inexorable momentum that is intensified by the sonorous resonance of the instrumental writing before being dispelled in the fraught non-resolution of the closing bars. However cohesive the sequence may seem as a whole, there is no doubt that this last invention is among Benjamin’s most unexpected though inimitable statements: a powerful conclusion to another successful BCMG recital.