Des Canyons aux Etoiles

De Grigny, orch. Benjamin
Livre d’orgue – Récit de tirece en taille [world premiere]
Des canyons aux étoiles …

Ueli Wiget (piano)
Simon Breyer (horn)
Rumi Ogawa (xylorimba)
Rainer Römer (glockenspiel)

Ensemble Modern Orchestra
George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom offered a welcome opportunity to hear the Ensemble Modern Orchestra working with one of its regular collaborators, George Benjamin, as conductor, composer and arranger. That latter guise first of all, with a transcription of ‘Récit de tierce en taille’ from the 1699 Premier livre d’orgue that was Nicolas de Grigny’s sole publication at his death when only 31. Poised between contrapuntal severity and a rhythmic freedom well in advance of its time, it made an appreciable impression in Benjamin’s elaborate arrangement: the sustained use of heavy brass partly explained by the orchestration being identical to that of Palimpsests – Benjamin’s most recent large-scale work – which followed it.

Taking its title from the procedure whereby a text is written over an original, leaving only fragments of the latter, Palimpsest I is an intricate assembling of textures derived from several distinctive motifs. Palimpsest II is an intricate and dynamically forceful ‘double-take’ on its predecessor – with an unexpected pay-off where aspects of both pieces are superimposed to intriguing effect. At both an aural and conceptual level, the layering of ideas is tellingly achieved. Heard as a diptych in 2002, Benjamin has since streamlined the continuity from one piece to another, increasing the inevitability of the overall process and pointing up contrasts and similarities in their respective soundworlds.

The performance, with the work’s relatively few strings pitted against sizeable complements of brass and woodwind, certainly played to the strengths of the Albert Hall acoustic – with the fact that EMO has played the work extensively in recent months no doubt contributing to the authority of the interpretation, as well as facilitating the ease with which the composer controlled proceedings.

Increasingly active in both the opera-house and the concert-hall, there is no doubting Benjamin’s executive acumen when it comes to directing modern music with which he feels in sympathy. Such a work is Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles … – composed during 1971-4, and which has the feel of a summatory orchestral statement. The expansive, 12-movement design has both the thematic and emotional inclusiveness of Turangalîla, while the soundworld recalls the sonic experimentation of Chronochromie and Sept Haïkï. Moreover, the combining of a ‘standard’ complement of woodwind and brass with 13 solo strings and an array of exotic percussion, likely stimulated by Messiaen’s visit to Utah in 1972, makes available a wealth of orchestral and chamber textures new to his music.

It is in this respect that Benjamin’s performance left its strongest impression. Des Canyons is designated “for solo piano, horn, xylorimba, glockenspiel and orchestra”, and those solo instruments were duly accorded ‘first among equals’ status within the ensemble. Moreover, pianist Ueli Wiget excelled in the two solo movements, their often-stark sonorities – often redolent of Catalogue des oiseaux – tempered by a demonstrable emotional engagement. If horn-player Simon Breyer found not quite the jaw-dropping virtuosity in ‘Appel interstellaire’ that others have brought to this movement, its vast range of technical possibilities was rendered with real imaginative freedom.

Benjamin steered a secure, attentive course throughout – though the heady ‘Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange’, which concludes Part Two, had a fervour such that ‘Zion Park et la Cité celeste’, which ends the work, lacked a little in cumulative impact. There was also a lingering feeling that his immersion in the stage-to-stage progress of the music precluded the fullest perspective on the work as a whole. Which is not to deny his identity with and belief in the piece itself: the uniqueness of its conception being readily and powerfully conveyed.

A few words about the Ensemble Modern Orchestra. Formed in 1998 around the 19 soloists of the renowned Ensemble Modern, its brief to perform exclusively music of the 20th and 21st centuries is a significant one, and necessary at a time when the so-called ‘standard repertoire’ has been reduced to little more than a matter of managerial convenience and audience baiting. And, with a roster of regular conductors including John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Peter Eötvös and Ingo Metzmacher, its aesthetic stance is clearly not one of pandering to a residual avant-garde establishment. A disc of Benjamin’s orchestral work – including Palimpsests – has just been released [Nimbus 5732], and there are plans for substantial touring during the 2004/5 season. Hopefully appearances such this Prom will not remain occasional events.

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