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.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

London Sinfonietta/Benjamin | Classical review
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
George Benjamin celebrates his 50th by making a rare appearance on piano, as the Sinfonietta spanned a career's worth of work, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

11, Feb, 2010 @11:00 PM

Article image
London Sinfonietta review – the haunting charm of Mauricio Kagel
From vampy robotics to a ‘game’ between cellists, this vivid celebration of the late avant-garde composer embraced the remarkable range of his work

Andrew Clements

04, Feb, 2020 @4:14 PM

Article image
Prom 18: MusicAeterna/Currentzis review – more Beethoven-sounding than ever before
In his first prom, Teodor Currentzis, ever the showman, pushed his players until the Second and Fifth Symphonies sounded as radical as they must have when new

Erica Jeal

29, Jul, 2018 @11:04 AM

Article image
Prom 17: BBCNOW/Brabbins review – affirmative, jaunty, with hints of school assembly
The Proms’ centenary-year tribute to Hubert Parry, the composer of Jerusalem, paired his tight Fifth symphony and a choral work with Vaughan Williams and Holst

Andrew Clements

29, Jul, 2018 @11:44 AM

Article image
Prom 74: Theodora review – glorious echo of Handel's cry for freedom
With Louise Alder radiantly assertive in the title role, the Arcangelo ensemble captured the austere beauty of an oratorio that speaks to our times

Tim Ashley

09, Sep, 2018 @1:24 PM

Article image
Prom 41: BBCSO/Gardner review – Vaughan Williams rarity of strikingly good music
Edward Gardner led a fine performance of choral music written after the first world war, with Jean-Guihen Queyras a refined soloist in Elgar’s cello concerto

Andrew Clements

13, Aug, 2018 @12:21 PM

Article image
BBC Scottish SO/Volkov review – burst of Alpine air in Haas's Proms debut
The Austrian composer’s Concerto Grosso No 1 and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony were nimbly scaled by the BBC Scottish

Andrew Clements

31, Jul, 2018 @11:11 AM

Article image
Prom 46: NYJO/Armstrong/Barker review – jazzy Prom is a riot of sounds
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra swagger through works by Stan Kenton and former member Laura Jurd, plus an original arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue

John Lewis

17, Aug, 2018 @11:38 AM

Article image
London Sinfonietta/Baker review – Tansy Davies' distinctive music lingers
The raw intensity of Davies’ writing was perfectly captured in this concert that also showcased impressive works by Naomi Pinnock and Clara Iannotta

Andrew Clements

11, Nov, 2019 @1:47 PM

Article image
Prom 42: Estonian Festival Orchestra/Järvi review – Pärt grips but Buniatishvili disappoints
Making their Proms debut, the Estonian Orchestra showed their quality in an all-Nordic programme, marred by Khatia Buniatishvili’s theatrical performance

Martin Kettle

14, Aug, 2018 @1:59 PM