sat 20/04/2024

George Benjamin, CBSO Centre, Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

George Benjamin, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

George Benjamin, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Benjamin's Pied Piper opera is a brilliant drama in sound

George Benjamin: standing out from the crowd

“A book,” says the Boy-Illuminator in George Benjamin’s latest opera Written on Skin, “needs long days of light.” He speaks for Benjamin himself, a composer who, for all his fabulous musical mind and ear, has never found composition easy and has often struggled to produce work of any kind that satisfies his own meticulous standards.

His one previous opera, Into the Little Hill, might be thought to exemplify this struggle, with its astonishing refinement of detail and almost studious denial of the facile or melodramatic. Written on skin it could well have been. It was intriguing to renew its acquaintance in this concert performance at Birmingham’s CBSO Centre, so soon after hearing its more openly theatrical, if no less refined successor.

When I first saw Into the Little Hill, semi-staged by Opera North, it seemed barely even to qualify as an opera. Its retelling of the Pied Piper legend, by a pair of female singers acting all the parts and at times narrating the story, seemed interior and elusive, like a Greek play in its lack of stage incident, but quite unlike one in its lack of demonstrative emotion. Now BCMG’s concert performance under the composer has, for me, confirmed this view.

The work emerges as a musical story, but one told as much by the instruments as by the voices, one, above all, that needs no visual correlative to grip the attention. Simply listening to this fascinatingly intricate, exquisitely detailed writing is like examining a Gobelin tapestry for its colour and weave, or a Breugel winter scene for its perspective and brush strokes. The story almost ceases to matter. Everything hangs on the way it’s told.

This is a real discovery, and it’s not surprising that Benjamin followed it up (for him) so quickly, and with a full-length opera that uses many of the same techniques but unmistakably dramatizes them. Nor is it surprising that he wanted the same librettist. Martin Crimp’s poem for Into the Little Hill is a superbly crafted offering for a composer whose music tends inward: so verbally subtle, yet so concise and vivid. This is a writer like Mallarmé for whom words, not ideas, are the raw material. Benjamin’s work is like that with notes. The music is the message, and that goes for the vocal parts as much as for the instrumental accompaniment.

These were beautifully taken here by Susanna Andersson (pictured right), a young Swedish soprano with brilliant control of the extreme high register Benjamin uses to colour the unworldly image of the piper (The Stranger), but a slight tendency to sing sharp at more human altitudes; and by Hilary Summers, a genuine contralto with a Ferrier-like depth of tone and precision of pitch and articulation. Her dark colourings were finely matched by the BCMG players: sinister moanings on the bass flute and basset horns, ratty scurryings in the strings, and so forth – quasi-figurative elements that tell the story almost as graphically as the often indecipherable words.

Benjamin also conducted a pair of BCMG commissions: Francesco Antonioni’s Ballata (a four-year-old work done here previously), and a new suite from David Sawer's ballet Rumpelstiltskin. To my annoyance, I got caught in traffic, missed the Antonioni and heard only the applause whose warmth argued the music’s effectiveness (well, there are worse critical tools than the clapometer).

Rumpelstiltskin, on the evidence of this suite – about a third of the whole ballet – is a score like Benjamin’s that captures the essence of its narrative through instrumental sonorities: wonderful tone-images of the spinning of straw into gold, of wedding bells magically rung by high woodwind, of the grotesque Rumpelstiltskin himself on thudding tuba. Sawer is evidently a composer with a flair for pictures in sound, and though this is a long suite (most of 30 minutes) it never flagged for an instant. 

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