Philharmonia/Benjamin review - a sensual and spare birthday concert

Royal Festival Hall, London
In this belated birthday celebration, George Benjamin’s programme included his own music plus a sombre memorial to his late friend Oliver Knussen

At the end of January George Benjamin turned 60. A composer who is also a fine conductor is in the useful position of being able to take charge of his own birthday concert, and Benjamin’s programme with the Philharmonia was a belated celebration. Two of his own works were included, alongside pieces by his close friend, the late Oliver Knussen, and by his teacher, Olivier Messiaen. Janáček’s joyously brassy Sinfonietta was the finale.

Benjamin’s recent output has been dominated by opera, and both of his pieces included here connect obliquely or directly to those projects. Dream of the Song, settings of Lorca and two 11th-century Hebrew poets for countertenor and women’s chorus, was composed in 2015 for Bejun Mehta, who created the role of the Boy in Written on Skin, Benjamin’s first full-length stage work. It seems a sensual retreat from the menace and violence of the opera, wrapping the solo voice (the outstanding James Hall here) in layers of gorgeous, shimmering textures.

The 2008 Duet for piano and orchestra preceded the composition of that opera, and its sequence of sparely scored, crisply focused episodes now seems a clearing of the musical decks for the work to come, concentrating on dramatic essentials rather than exploiting the virtuosity of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for whom it was written, and who contributed the Messiaen too – a typically brilliant account of Le Merle Bleu (The Blue Rock Thrush) from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux.

The concert had begun with Knussen – the rarely performed Choral, composed in 1970 when he was 17. It’s a dark processional for a huge wind band with percussion and double basses; as Benjamin showed, it now makes a sombre memorial to a composer whose loss is still so keenly felt.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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