Dance Figures

Composer Portrait – George Benjamin

George Benjamin
Piano Figures [Numbers 3-6]
Viola, Viola

George Benjamin in conversation with Christopher Cook

George Benjamin (piano)
Catherine Bullock & Juliet Jopling (piano)

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 14

Symphony No.94 in G (Surprise)
George Benjamin
Dance Figures [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The music of George Benjamin has featured regularly at the Proms since Ringed by the Flat Horizon brought the 20-year-old composer to national prominence in 1980. Surprising, then, that it has taken some while for Dance Figures (2004) to receive its UK premiere. Commissioned by choreographer Anne Teresa de Keermaeker, it was designed as a ballet (premiered as such in Brussels earlier this year) that would be equally effective as a concert work, which Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony performed in May 2005.

At 15 minutes, Dance Figures consists of nine short but eventful sections – continuous except for a notated pause between the sixth and seventh – that emerge audibly from the slow introduction, translucently scored for divided strings. Thereafter, the music pursues a trajectory where melodic expansion is countered by rhythmic dynamism – with the latter reaching its apogee in the ricocheting gestures of section six; after which, two slower sections unwind the melodic writing down to a point of harmonic near-stasis, before a brief coda propels the motivic essentials to an exhilarating close.

In the earlier “Composer Portrait”, Benjamin had spoken of the influence of Stravinsky’s Agon on his understanding of what dance was capable of, and the present work’s sequence of interdependent sections certainly brings the latter’s late masterpiece to mind. In its imaginative but restrained scoring for a large orchestra, however, the composer’s much earlier tone poem Chant du Rossignol is readily evoked; interestingly enough – a work, adapted from an opera, that became equally well known in ballet form. Vividly realised by the BBC Symphony and incisively conducted by David Robertson, Dance Figures furthers the concerns of harmonic subtlety and formal clarity that have informed Benjamin’s music for more than a decade.

Related in many particulars are Piano Figures (2004) – nine pieces for pianists of varying ability, four of which were played by the composer in the pre-concert “Composer Portrait” that also included what may now be Benjamin’s most performed work – Viola, Viola (1997), its engaging and often fractious dialogue between these instruments being capably rendered by Catherine Bullock and Juliet Jopling.

The aforementioned piano pieces were premiered recently under the aegis of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto after the interval of the Prom itself seems likely to go down as a highlight of this Proms season. This was not a reading that played up the work’s sheer physicality: the first movement’s tutti was broad but never sluggish – benefiting from Robertson’s astute balance and attention to detail and Aimard’s poise in even the densest passage-work, with the maximum tension reserved for the fateful point at which the soloist commences the reprise.

Such expressive consistency also characterised the latter two movements: the Adagio raptly introspective but with no lack of inner passion, and a chamber-like intimacy in the interplay of piano and solo winds; the finale robust yet with due spontaneity in its episodes (rarely is the strings’ fugato at its centre so clearly and evenly articulated), before a coda whose hard-won repose merged seamlessly into vigorous affirmation. An interpretation to renew one’s admiration for this challenging masterpiece.

There were good things, too, in Robertson’s account of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ which opened the concert – notably the tensely-argued developments of the outer movements, an Andante that confirmed the (in)famous fortissimo chord as just one from an array of arresting dynamic conceits, and a Minuet whose energy did not offset a dancing gait. But the disinterest that was visually and, on occasion, audibly apparent should once again have alerted Proms planners to the fact that Haydn symphonies are wasted in this context: round concerts off with them, perhaps, but do not use them as a means – albeit unintentionally – for ‘settling’ audiences into the evening. The best of them are far too good for that.

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