Monday 14 May 2012

Philharmonia/Benjamin - Benjamin and Ligeti, 13 May 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Benjamin – Jubilation
Ligeti – Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe
Benjamin – Palimpsests
Ligeti – Lontano
Benjamin – Ringed by the Flat Horizon

Samuel Coles (flute)
Gordon Hunt (oboe)
Kent County Junior Choir
Kent Girls Choir
Musicians from St Elphege’s RC Junior School, Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School, Centre for Young Musicians, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School, Bromley Youth Music Trust, and Chestnut Grove School
Whitstable Recorder Ensemble
Kent Youth Recorders
Philharmonia Orchestra
George Benjamin (conductor)

‘Jubilation’, the Southbank Centre’s weekend celebration of the music of George Benjamin concluded with a Philharmonia Orchestra concert conducted by the composer, opening with the work from which the celebration took its name. A nod, perhaps to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee? We certainly saw and heard plenty about the accursed Olympic Games, as if this and all manner of other cultural events had any connection with that extravaganza of profligacy, which will turn London into a living Hell during the summer. Jubilation, for orchestra and mixed children’s group (1985), is probably best off considered as a work of inclusion, an opportunity for participation in a work of contemporary music for massed ranks of children, some of whom need not read music to take part. Commissioned by the defunct Inner London Education Authority, abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, it thus harked back to an era in which music education outside of the independent sector still struggled on, with often remarkable results, in the face of official hostility and indifference. Benjamin utilises a large symphony orchestra, a host of recorders, extra brass, percussion, a steel drum ensemble, synthesiser, and children’s chorus. Not for the first time in the concert, I was put in mind of his teacher Messiaen, not that the music ever quite sounded ‘like’ Messiaen’s, though it did not necessarily sound unlike it either; however, the sense of a processional could readily have been conceived as a secularised reflection of Messiaen’s world. Even the synthesiser sounded a little similar to the French composer’s beloved ondes martenot. And the recorder decorations put me in mind, perhaps fancifully, of the piper who would spirit away the children in Benjamin’s opera, Into the Little Hill.

Ligeti, one of Benjamin’s favourite composers – he conducted the 2001 premiere of the Hamburg Concerto – wrote his Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe in 1972. The first of its two movements opened in beguiling fashion, shifting clouds revealing wonderful ears for texture on the part of both composer and conductor. The richness of Samuel Coles’s alto flute – he played upon three different instruments – contrasted piquantly with the refined oboe tone of Gordon Hunt. A sense of fun was imparted to the livelier second movement, in which clocks increasingly displace clouds. The antiphonal dialogues between soloists, different members of the orchestra – for instance, clarinet and bassoon – and between soloists and members of the orchestra displayed an impeccable level of technique and musicianship from all involved. There was an almost Stravinskian, balletic quality at times, teeming with life as if this were testimony from rejuvenated survivors of the Rite of Spring.

Benjamin’s 2002 Palimpsests also seemed, in its woodwind opening, to inherit something of the Rite. Pierre Boulez, its dedicatee and first conductor, would doubtless have relished the kinship. Those woodwind fluttering, however, were soon overwritten, though never exclusively, by violent brass interjections, the battle, distinction, and combination of the two texts to the palimpsests the story of the work as a whole. Messiaen again sprang to mind, perhaps surprisingly so in the awestruck quality of some of Benjamin’s chorale-like writing. Harps again suggested Stravinsky and perhaps Boulez too: sur Incises?

Ligeti’s Lontano, surely one of the greatest musical works of the 1960s, opened the second half, the Philharmonia and Benjamin sure guides to the revelation of its treasures. Here we were of course again in the world of the large orchestra, its shifting soundscapes a textbook example of polyphonic Klangfarbenmelodie. Atmosphere, landscape even, emerges as if this were a tone poem, which in a sense it is. The magical subsiding into silence was splendidly handled by Benjamin and the orchestra.

Ringed by the Flat Horizon was Benjamin’s first work (1980) for orchestra, again a large symphony orchestra. The eeriness to which he drew attention in his programme note sounded as if a continuation, or perhaps better a tribute to, Lontano, though the landscape here is perhaps more readily identifiable, the composer having taken his inspiration from a photograph of a thunderstorm over the desert in New Mexico and an extract from The Waste Land. Its opening bells and that sense of landscape again seemed to evoke Messiaen, as would many of the subsequent orchestral colours, rhythms, and even harmonies. Timothy Walden’s cello solos proved quietly ecstatic. There was, as in Jubilation, a secularised, materialist sense of Messiaen’s awe, in this case with respect to natural phenomena. If only this country would accept that such ‘jubilation’ were worthwhile for its own sake rather than as an appendage to sporting events, a boost to tourism, or any other such nonsense.