George Benjamin's Duet, his new work for pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Cleveland Orchestra, sounds like no other piece he has ever written - and no other piano concerto in the repertoire. Its premiere at the Lucerne festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, revealed music of startling concentration. Duet plays for just 13 minutes, but its expressive and emotional effects are on the largest scale.
Benjamin signals his intentions right from the start in a terse solo for Aimard, whose crystalline two-part writing cascades into a spiky tutti for the orchestra. The orchestral palette is reduced to a soundworld that matches and amplifies the piano's sonority. Benjamin often pares the piano writing down to single lines, and Aimard duetted with the harp, the timpani, and the disembodied sound of the four double-basses playing high, whistle-like harmonics.
Instead of virtuosic figuration, Benjamin's piano in Duet produces bell-like chimes in the slower music and laser-like clarity in the faster writing. Most strikingly of all, in the centre of the work, Benjamin writes music of stark intensity, distilled to its essentials: individual notes and chords in the piano part and ghostly flickers of string writing, with staccato tremors in the cellos and harmonics in the violas. There was a physical sense of the music being wrenched into another dimension.
Aimard's technical and musical command was remarkable, but so too was Welser-Möst's conducting. After the interval, he and the orchestra gave a performance of Dvořák's New World Symphony that lived up to its name: each movement was freshly imagined and seamlessly connected.