Mahler CO/Benjamin/Aimard review – intricate textures and the sparkle of cut glass

Royal Albert Hall, London
George Benjamin conducted the belated premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra, part of a programme that also celebrated his friendship with the late Oliver Knussen

George Benjamin passed 60 last year, and the Proms had planned to celebrate his birthday with the first performance of a specially commissioned orchestral work. Twelve months late, that premiere finally arrived – a Concerto for Orchestra that is Benjamin’s first substantial piece for orchestra for 17 years. It was written for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, with the composer conducting, they introduced it, the only orchestra based outside the UK to appear at this year’s Proms.

The Concerto is dedicated to the memory of Oliver Knussen, Benjamin’s close friend for 40 years, who died in 2018. The 16-minute piece, he says, “attempts to conjure a trace of the energy, humour and spirit I associate with my friend”. With brilliant solos from around the orchestra constantly breaking through the intricately detailed textures, it certainly justifies the description of “concerto”, but there are moments of quieter reflection that interrupt the hectic virtuoso activity, too, when the extended string lines that thread their way through the work take centre stage, and articulate the single-movement form.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the soloist in Ravel’s Piano concerto, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and George Benjamin.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the soloist in Ravel’s piano concerto, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and George Benjamin. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

There was also the first performance of Benjamin’s orchestrations of three of Henry Purcell’s viol-consort pieces: restrained, almost reverential reworkings. He had opened the concert with Knussen’s own The Way to Castle Yonder, a gorgeous melange of orchestra interludes from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!, full of exquisitely heard textures and fleeting echoes of the early 20th-century models from which Knussen assembled his quicksilver musical language.

Another old friend, the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, was the soloist in Ravel’s G major Concerto. Benjamin and the orchestra set the tone of the performance with effervescently transparent textures, while Aimard’s playing had the hard-edged sparkle of cut glass. And to complete the belated birthday homage, his encore was Benjamin’s Relativity Rag, which deconstructs a two-part rag into shards of chromaticism, before reassembling the bits into a brief reminder of the original, with its tongue always firmly in its cheek.

• All Proms are available on BBC Sounds until 10 October.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in classical: Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin; Tosca – review
The only international orchestra at this year’s Proms dazzle in a world premiere dedicated to them. And Puccini and chips with English National Opera

Fiona Maddocks

04, Sep, 2021 @11:30 AM

Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Aimard, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

Tim Ashley

26, Aug, 2007 @11:17 PM

Article image
Proms Festival Orchestra/ Wigglesworth review – jubilant one-off
A jubilant and light-on-its-feet performance of Mahler’s monumental 5th symphony made this Prom an emotionally charged occasion

Erica Jeal

09, Sep, 2021 @12:57 PM

Article image
London Sinfonietta/George Benjamin review – austere first world war meditation
Benjamin conducts four new pieces with care and intensity but comes into his own with works of ritual mourning by Stravinsky and Messiaen

Tim Ashley

23, Jul, 2018 @10:30 AM

Prom 27: BBCSO/Benjamin, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London
No British composer since Benjamin Britten has announced himself so decisively as George Benjamin did in 1980, says Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

07, Aug, 2008 @11:06 PM

Article image
Manchester Collective/Mahan Esfahani review – high energy Proms debut
The harpsichordist’s playing was punchy and brilliant, but too much of this wide-ranging programme featured music that felt insubstantial

Andrew Clements

18, Aug, 2021 @3:16 PM

Article image
VPO/Harding review – Mahler given violence, lyricism and uneasy beauty
Daniel Harding’s interpretation of Mahler’s Sixth darkened ominously as it went, with a final plunge into despair that was disquieting in the extreme

Tim Ashley

08, Sep, 2017 @11:34 AM

Article image
Prom 10: NYO/Benedetti/Heyward review – guts, virtuosity … and kazoos
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain gave a ferociously committed, exuberant and exhilarating performance of Beethoven’s Third and a buzzing new piece by Laura Jurd

Flora Willson

08, Aug, 2021 @11:44 AM

Article image
Mahler CO/Benjamin review – artfully interconnected themes
Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was dazzling in Ravel, while two vocal works at the concert’s core were luminous, poised and eloquent

Andrew Clements

16, Jun, 2015 @1:55 PM

Article image
Hallé/Elder/Grosvenor/Lapwood review – bold brass and formidable organ
The Hallé under Mark Elder was a charismatic match for Anna Lapwood’s viscera-quaking instrument, while Benjamin Grosvenor’s Beethoven was gracious and muscular

Flora Willson

08, Sep, 2021 @5:28 PM