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Reviews

06 Mar 2019

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern at Wigmore Hall

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Anu Komsi

Photo credit: Maarit Kytöharju

 

An Ensemble Modern commission, here receiving its United Kingdom premiere, Milliken’s Bright Ring spoke, to quote the composer, of ‘fields of energy that I perceived whilst performing with the Ensemble Modern,’ an energy ‘of collaboration and interaction, whether pulsing or still (or both)’. I initially read such lines with a degree of scepticism, but having heard the piece, they made a good deal of sense, the idea furthered by the title reference to the line, ‘Bright is the ring of words’, from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rings of Saturn. Two violins vied with each other at the opening, joined by viola and intermittently others, in music that seemed to depict and/or express both pent-up rhythmic violence and something (ring-like?) more numinous, often led by flute or tuned percussion. There was, I think, a sense of something akin to an extra-terrestrial landscape and narrative, not in a filmic way, but perhaps more akin to the tone poems of the past. The close, in which a flickering cello line initiated a final explosion, thereafter subsiding, seemed once again to encapsulate that tension between ensemble and solo instrument, planet and ring, pulse and its withdrawal.

Christian Mason’s 2015 Layers of Love, written for and recorded by Klangforum Wien, announced itself with slithering, mysterious microtones. Movement in various ways, rhythmic and harmonic, was initially slow and hard won, yet undeniable. There was a strangeness that seemed more of this world than Milliken’s other, but I am not sure I could explain what, practically, I mean by that. Certainly there was drama, albeit less pictorial than in the previous work. More than once, Bernd Alois Zimmermann came to my mind: again, I am not entirely sure why, but think it may have had something to do with the ultimately achieved rhythms and their relationship to sound, not least from the double bass.

Dallapiccola’s Piccola musica notturna spoke with the distilled mastery of a true classic, as perfectly formed in work and performance as a piece by Mozart, Schoenberg, or Debussy. Indeed, rather to my surprise, I found something naggingly Debussyan, if only in correspondence, to the turns of several phrases, however different the serial method one could hear and feel as clearly as if chez Schoenberg or his pupils. It was not difficult to understand what might have attracted Benjamin to so exquisitely logical, warmly expressive a miniature. If ever there were a composer whose music we should hear far more often…

I had last heard Into the Little Hill only in September, in Berlin , also conducted by the composer, albeit with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Its small performing forces (two vocal soloists and ensemble), formal perfection, and dramatic power render it a highly attractive work for regular performance, whether on stage or in concert; yet possession of such qualities does not always translate into such (relative) popularity. In this case, as with Benjamin’s two subsequent, larger-scale operas, Written on Skin and Lessons of Love and Violence , it is heartening to report that widespread enthusiasm continues. Stravinskian incision, violence, and economy, marked the opening - not just for itself, but as the opening to this complete (compleat) drama of modern political life, more bitingly relevant, so it seems, with every hearing. Whether it were the cool hieratic (Symphonies of Wind Instruments ?) quality to the Minister’s addressing the crowd; the latter’s controlled yet increasing hysteria; the deathly tension of electric woodwind lines as the Minister meets the Stranger; or the latter’s wheedling, seductive way (heightened no end by Anu Komsi in particular, likewise her bloodcurdling cries ‘Swear by your sleeping child’): one could have cut the air with a knife - and that only in the first scenes to Part One.

As so often, operatic mastery shows itself particularly in the interludes between scenes. What a composer says and does not, unconstrained by words and indeed voices, will often - not always - penetrate to the heart of his or her musical dramaturgy. Such was certainly the case here, both in work and performance; so too in orchestral writing and playing elsewhere, as for instance in the terror of the intricately inviting processional that underlies the scene between Mother and Child. ‘The rats will stream like hot metal to the rim of the world.’ Indeed, they would - and did. A similar observation might be made of the division into two parts, the latter’s opening sounding and feeling strongly as if a new act, as if marking the return from an interval for the opera’s final, fatal events to unfold. ‘And music?’ ‘All music - smiles the minister - is incidental.’ Not at all. For the true rodent ghosts were now in the machine; so too, led by far-from-incidental music, was the child whose grasping, mendacious politician of a father had stolen its future. The will of the people had been enacted: The Little Hill meant The Little Hill.

Mark Berry

Cathy Milliken: Bright Ring (UK premiere); Christian Mason: Layers of Love; Dallapiccola: Piccola musica notturna; Benjamin: Into the Little Hill. Anu Komsi (soprano); Helena Rasker (contralto); Ensemble Modern/George Benjamin (conductor).

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 5 March 2019.

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