Mahler Chamber Orchestra play Knussen, Purcell, Ravel with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Benjamin, conducted by George Benjamin

The Way to Castle Yonder

Three Consorts [trans. George Benhamiun; world premiere]

Piano Concerto in G

George Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra [BBC co-commission; world premiere]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Sir George Benjamin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“There seems to be an English composer called George Benjamin” joked soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, opening the slim score of the encore demanded by a pleasingly well-attended arena of Prommers, after his performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by that very same Sir George Benjamin.  The encore in question was Relativity Rag (the third of the Three Studies for Solo Piano), and turned the clock back nearly 40 years, to 1984 – just four years after plain George had made his Proms debut as a composer with Ringed by the Flat Horizon.  It still sums Sir George up to a tee, favouring short pieces which encompass a serious intent but not without a winsome wit, here colliding Albert Einstein with Scott Joplin, with multiple false starts and repeated cadences.

The encore brought the tally to three of Benjamin’s own works, the other two receiving their world premieres at this unique Prom, given that it featured the only non-British ensemble of this season.  Always popular visitors here, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra made the most welcome of returns to the Royal Albert Hall. The programme was topped and tailed with a nod to Oliver Knussen, that major figure in contemporary British music and friend of the Proms, who died – all-too-young – in 2018.  His exquisite pot-pourri from his second Sendak opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!, The Way to Castle Yonder made for a transformational opener, immediately conveying an audience into Knussen’s detailed and mercurial work, following Sendak’s terrier Jenny on her journeys, on the milk-cart to the White House, in her dreaming of lions, and on her ride to Castle Yonder, evaporating suddenly, having whetted the appetite for more.

To end was the world premiere of Sir George’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in memory of Knussen and dedicated to its co-commissioner, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra itself. But first, following Knussen’s own opener, Benjamin’s new transcriptions for chamber orchestra of three Purcell Consorts from 1660, In nomine 1, Fantasia 7 and Fantasia upon One Note, unassumingly but beautifully expanded from the supposed original viol consort, to include wind and brass. Hence the brass hocketing the cantus firmus in the opening consort, and the muted pair of horns adding an unworldly texture to the strings in the second.  The last swathed the constant C with moving layers of instrumental colours in a way, I have no doubt, Purcell would understand and appreciate.

One can easily read a character portrait of Knussen in Concerto for Orchestra: his attention to detail, his wide range of musical passions and his ever-collegial zeal in encouragement of others’ work.  From that point of view it is a musical statement of a great personal friendship. Benjamin, in his own programme note, points out that it is constructed for the most part in the same basic tempo, so contrast is provided by articulation and timbre.  The opening wind passage, slowly modulating allows the strings to appear almost unnoticed and sink to the depths.  A tuba moves the music on, with shadowy accompaniment, but the bassoon in its highest register moves the pitch up.  I was immediately put in mind of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s single-span works, although Benjamin can melt into sudden lyrical phrases that are his own.  More impassioned reaches are to come, suddenly collapsing for another slowly to build, ending as if breath had suddenly stopped.  It is a hugely convincing score, but demands more than one hearing.  I look forward to making its acquaintance again and again.

As to Aimard’s contribution, then the cheers and stamping can speak for themselves.  He may claim in the programme interview that the Concerto in G major is one of Ravel’s less technically difficult pieces, but it’s something special when brought off so well.  It helps having an orchestra of soloists alongside you. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra revelled in the playful aspects of the jazz-influenced score.  And Ravel, with his own heightened sense of orchestral colouring, perfectly fitted into this programme.

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