Sir George Benjamin: A Duet and a Dream

A Duet and a Dream
Philharmonia Orchestra & Voices, Sir George Benjamin
Pierre-Laurent Aimard piano, James Hall counter-tenor
Royal Festival Hall, 5 March 2020

Knussen: Choral
Messiaen: Le merle bleu (The blue rock thrush) from Catalogue d’oiseaux
Benjamin: Duet for piano & orchestra
Benjamin: Dream of the Song
Janáček: Sinfonietta

A nicely balanced programme of music dating from 1926 to 2015 saw Sir George Benjamin conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in two of his own pieces, together with one of the piano works of his teacher, Messiaen, the 1972 Choral by the influential composer Oliver Knussen with Janáček’s rousing Sinfonietta as a finale. The opening Choral was composed for wind, percussion and double basses, the number 4 appearing to be an underlying thread in the instrumentation. As well as four double basses, there were similar quartets of slithering trombones, fluttering flutes, saxophones, oboes, bassoons and percussionists. It was composed Knussen’s vision of “several funeral procession converging into a point in the distance”, the slow pulse and evolving instrumental colour reinforcing this image.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard studied with Yvonne Loriod, and would have heard her perform Le merle bleu many times: Messiaen dedicated the Catalogue d’oiseaux to her. An evocative and powerful piece, it is based on Messiaen’s love of bird song, in this case, the Blue Rock Trush that he heard on the Mediterranean singing from a rocky crevice. We also heard the Thekla Lark, Common Swift and, reflecting the coastal setting, the cry of Herring Gulls. Aimard’s familiarity with the piece was evident, as was his ability to portray the mood of sheer power and drama.

The first of the two Benjamin pieces was the 2008 Duet for piano and orchestra, composed for its soloist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. An interesting take on traditional concerto form, Benjamin places the piano to the left, grouped with the percussion and harp, the rest of the orchestra (with no violins) arranged centre and right. The expected sense of collaboration is replaced by a series of dialogues between the piano and various sections of the orchestra, featuring some exquisite instrumental colours, for example, between double bass and harp, piano and timps, and contributions from mute trumpet and cello. The piano’s contribution is often just a series of single notes, not quite making for a coherent melodic line.

Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, reflects the world of Andalusian poetry, contrasting ancient Arabic poems dating from around the year 1,000 with works by Federico García Lorca, here sung by a small female chorus, interestingly including singers from the ‘early music’ performance tradition.  “The poetry I chose abounds in the imagery of stars and moonlight, and I wanted to try to capture a silvery tone for the whole piece”. It was first performed in Amsterdam in 2015, where it was paired with the concluding work of this concert, Janácek’s Sinfonietta. Countertenor James Hall gently lyrical voice perfectly matched the sound world or Benjamin’s orchestration in the sequence of six interconnected sections. The words were often used as a sound-effect of their own, notably in the opening The Pen where the word ‘Naked’ is deconstructed into a series of interjections.

Janácek’s Sinfonietta was an inspired choice to end the evening. It opens with an array of 11 trumpeters above the orchestra, with pairs of bass trumpets and euphoniums providing the harmonic support along with the impressive timpanist (Antoine Siguré) just below. The subsequent movements reflect Janácek’s homage to the city of Brno, the second movement, The Castle, Brno, having three trumpeters sounding from the ramparts. The glorious return of the opening fanfare, this time with full orchestra, made for a fittingly dramatic climax to an excellent evening of inspiring music.