London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin review – austere first world war meditation

Roundhouse, London
Benjamin conducts four new pieces with care and intensity but comes into his own with works of ritual mourning by Stravinsky and Messiaen

George Benjamin and the London Sinfonietta’s Roundhouse Prom was dedicated to the late Oliver Knussen, who was closely associated with the Sinfonietta both as composer and conductor. The programme formed an austere meditation on the first world war, with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question serving as a prelude to two great 20th-century works of ritual mourning – Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Olivier Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum. At its centre, however, was a quartet of new pieces from composers representing four of the countries (Germany, Britain, Austria and Italy) that took part in the conflict.

Hannah Kendall’s instrumental Verdala commemorates the “Halifax incident” of 1916, when the SS Verdala, transporting troops from the British West Indies to Europe, was diverted north into a blizzard, before reaching Halifax, Nova Scotia. Many soldiers died of hypothermia or needed amputations due to frostbite. Kendall’s scoring is sparsely effective: brittle high woodwind suggest the pervasive cold, while time percussively ticks away.

George Benjamin conducts Susan Bickley and the London Sinfonietta.
George Benjamin conducts Susan Bickley and the London Sinfonietta. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The other pieces use a mezzo soloist – the excellent Susan Bickley – and deploy an expressionist vocal style that swerves between sprechstimme and lyricism. Georg Friedrich Haas’s The Last Minutes of Inhumanity evoked distant sounds of conflict as Bickley declaimed a savage text by Karl Kraus. Isabel Mundry’s Gefallen takes the German war poet August Stramm as the starting point for a study of the effects of trauma, in which the vocal line struggles to find meaning in the words. Luca Francesconi’s We Wept uses a text by Dolly Shepherd, a driver with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France, to explore the existential panic that set in when the guns of war suddenly fell silent.

Benjamin conducted the premieres with his customary care and intensity, though it was elsewhere that he came into his own. The ceremonies of Symphonies of Wind Instruments were all biting clarity and palpable, if understated, grief. Benjamin studied composition with Messiaen and remains one of the great interpreters of his music; Et Exspecto, awesomely played, was genuinely overwhelming in its progression from darkness to its final contemplation of God’s inscrutable majesty.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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