mon 17/06/2024

Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin, BBC Proms review - a revealing composer portrait | reviews, news & interviews

Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin, BBC Proms review - a revealing composer portrait

Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Benjamin, BBC Proms review - a revealing composer portrait

George Benjamin's new Concerto for Orchestra alongside works exploring his roots

Sir George Benjamin: dazzling talentAll images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Composer George Benjamin has dazzling talent, but he is difficult to showcase. He is not a naturally extrovert type, and most of his projects take years to formulate, and only come about through collaboration with close and trusted performers.

But this Proms programme cleverly exploited that trait, presenting a varied portrait of the composer through his many friendships and collaborations. Benjamin himself conducted, leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with whom he has worked for many years, also giving a concerto with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another regular collaborator, as part of a programme that revolved around Benjamin’s friendship with the recently deceased Oliver Knussen, and close friend for over 40 years.

To open, Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder, a “pot-pourri” of orchestral numbers from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!. Knussen’s score is colourful but modest in scale and dramatic scope. As befits music for a children’s opera, the score is accessible and engaging. Benjamin’s approach here was to stand back and let the music speak for itself. Even the one loud section was presented at broad tempos, and without histrionics from the brass. It had the feeling of a memorial for a recently deceased friend (Knussen died in 2018), while also pointing forwards towards the clear influence the older composer has exerted on Benjamin’s own work. Goerge Benjamin and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the PromsThree Consorts was the first of two world premieres. This short work is an orchestral transcription of three pieces for consort of viols by Purcell. Benjamin begins in Purcell’s world, having the opening lines played simply by the strings without vibrato. He then begins to move the lines around the orchestra, deftly transferring to the winds, initially by presenting the first countermelody in the trombones.

Benjamin writes that his aim is to expose the fabric of the intricate writing, something he achieves though increasing timbral contrast between the contrapuntal lines. But his orchestration also tends in the opposite direction, towards diffusion and ambiguity. In one section, he achieves this by having a phrase from the first desk first violins answered by the rest of the section, who are all using practice mutes. And highly ambiguous percussion colourings also add to aura, including the sound of cow bells being bowed while resting on the head of a timpani.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G may seem a conservative choice for a programme otherwise made up of contemporary music, but Benjamin and Aimard gave a performance that aligned closely with the colours and moods of the other works. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (pictured below) has a long association with this concerto, yet he is still able to bring a freshness and spontaneity that enlivens all the textures. The orchestral woodwinds were on fine form here (special mention to cor anglais player Olivier Stankiewicz in the second movement), and Aimard continually deferred to the players for the tone and phrasing of his playing. But the most remarkable feature of Aimard’s playing is the consistency of his technique. In each movement, an unbroken fabric of piano sound is immediately established, frenetic in the first movement, legato in the second, prickly in the third, over which Aimard can then add his expressive insights.

The slow movement was a particular delight. Here, the piano became a floating web of sound, all hammers and attacks forgotten, the passage of time seemingly suspended. Aimard’s encore was also well chosen, Relativity Rag by Benjamin. The piece begins as a ragtime vamp, but keeps getting interrupted and becoming rhythmically disjointed. The chaotic results need a pianist of Aimard’s calibre to bring it off, and he has the sense of humour for it too. Pierre-Laurent AimardThe major work on the programme was Benjamin’s new Concerto for Orchestra, commission for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, dedicated to them and to the memory of Knussen. Benjamin here uses the name as a convenience, acknowledging the virtuosity required of his players, but rarely showcasing soloists or connecting back to the classical-era concerto tradition. Instead, the work is a continuous 20-minute span, almost all at the same tempo, a steady-to-brisk andante. Presenting the Purcell transcriptions earlier in the programme was a valuable key for the audience, and Purcell’s long contrapuntal lines clearly play a role in Benjamin’s thinking here. So too does Benjamin’s idea of starting with the plain sound of vibrato-less strings and then gradually expanding into broader and more complex orchestral sonorities.

As in Benjamin’s operas, the score employs a chamber orchestra, but with some unusual additions, including the contrabasses of both the clarinet and trombone families. Weighty utterances from the low brass are a signature of this score, as is the sound of high timpani, and the percussion section is dominated by two players, one at each side of the stage, each with a pair of small, high tuned timps. Relationships between instruments seemed to be conceived as if they were characters in drama, that antiphonal debate from the timpani contrasting, for example, with the much closer pairing of the two horns, always playing together, if often in highly dissonant sonorities. And the concerto for orchestra idea is acknowledged in the virtuosic writing for the first violin section, who often have brief passages of high bravura. That is the exception, though, in a score that is generally modest in its outlook. The textures often grow to significant complexity, but then quickly revert to quieter, more plaintive textures. It is music of staggering invention, but without any bombast and without any showing off, just like the composer himself.


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