FringeReview UK 2018
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Sir George Benjamin perform Mussorgsky, Benjamin, Ravel Ligeti and Debussy, with pianist Tamara Stefanovich in Ravel’s Left-Hand Piano Concerto.
George Benjamin conducting the National Youth Orchestra is like comprising the shock with the new. Benjamin’s genius has rekindled over the past twelve years in three operas and once again he’s our leading composer under sixty.
Opera’s expanded his expressive palate but never at the expense of his intricate, layered sound world. It’s different to that other intricate modernist Thomas Ades, the wonderfully uncompromising Rebecca Saunders or the sweep of Julian Anderson. So it’s thrilling to have Benjamin conduct one of his own pieces with such a band.
Naturally given his French affiliations Benjamin leans to Ravel and Debussy, as well as composers like Ligeti and even Mussorgsky who fall outside any Teutonic nostrums.
Benjamin’s own work was after the first piece, a Romantic curtain-raiser, if filtered with another superfine orchestrator: Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain has been heard in Mussorgsky’s original orchestration, undiscovered for years. But despite advocacy it’s ever replaced Rimsky’s.
Never intended as a stand-alone, it mutated through one aborted opera to end in the unfinished Sorochinsky Fair. Rimsky brings out the devilry and swirling strings with menacing brass de rigeur from then on to evoke black sabbaths, with that Russian standby, bells dispelling it all. Benjamin’s reading with the NYO certainly dwells on texture but never at the expense of thrill, and his brisk tempi underscore the heft of Mussorgsky’s fever. All sections played this to the hilt. A calling-card perhaps, but breathtaking.
Benjamin’s own Dance Figures (2002-04) start typically from something else. Here it’s piano pieces swiftly including the stand-alone Olicatnus. That’s why it’s here, Olicatnus being a tribute to Oliver Knussen on his fiftieth and who died aged just sixty-six last month. There was another tribute to Knussen, but here it’s one composer of genius paying heartfelt homage to another, a great friend to Benjamin and everyone he touched.
Benjamin’s intricate sashay through nine linked movements over fifteen minutes is difficult to convey as it’s easy to lose your place even following the programme. It’s music of beguilement, shaded silence and eruptive danger, particularly after the introductory ‘Spell’ and ‘Recit’. The third movement ‘In the Mirror’ is a two-part polyphony slivering to ‘Interruptions’: volatile, cross-cutting with woodwind skirls and astonishingly assured handling from the NYO section here. A quartet of horns blare and an oboe peeps underneath the texture, darting back.
Movements like ‘Song’ a respite move over to ‘Hammers’ which really does but in a high register and like Birtwistle’s early-mid career pieces, with a monolithic pulse. What Benjamin describes as fragments ‘hocketing’ round the brass this is a highlight and rock-solid playing.
It’s here we get a brief pause preluding a short ‘Alone’ but then ‘Olicantus’ still known in its separate guise spins out like a prophetic lament|: bass clarinets and cellos in an almost mourning canon leading to the self-explanatory ‘Whirling’.
The first half ended with that dark-hued and tragic Left-Hand Concerto in D minor Ravel wrote around 1929-30 for the testy one-armed Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher and personally as difficult. It’s a pity other works he commissioned aren’t given airings. Britten’s Diversions which Wittgenstein professed to find perfect, the Prokofiev 4th heard here in the 2015 Proms traversal of all Prokofiev’s piano concertos, the two Strauss, two Schmidt, Korngold and many others. There’s more than one work of genius amongst them (Britten, Prokofiev, the once-derided Korngold at the least). There’s much chamber music too: Schmidt surpassed himself (save in his symphonies and oratorio) in his three Piano (two with clarinet) Quintets and Korngold’s Piano Quartet and Quintet, all Wittgenstein-inspired, would inspire an audience too.
But Ravel stands above them all in this war-inflected concerto conceived for a maimed veteran from the other side. As Marguerite Long, dedicatee of Ravel’s other piano concerto (in G) declared, Ravel had written out his soul. But pace Wittgenstein who opposed him, he’d written out his orchestral balance too. Left-hand means the bass side of the piano, so Ravel adjusted his orchestral palate accordingly. Tubas and bass clarients wind up in the NYO’s phenomenally clean traversal of potentially murky but in Ravel cleanly-written Tenebrae of a work.
Tamara Stefanovich was the charismatic soloist, proving she ahs the heft and nuance to convey the weight of this unbelievably short work – it clocks in about seventeen minutes. She manages the first glissandi in her first cadenza with a pinging top note before the orchestra takes over for the development.
Elsewhere I felt she struggled just a bit with the alacrity and acrobatics of this fiendishly compressed work. There were tiny hesitations but she never lost control and her expressive palate remained impressive, fully registering the tragic weight. She riffed well as the blues tinkled over the cakewalk gyrations ushering in the huge unwinding after the first tragic climax. Anther cadenza takes the work in a valedictory directions the cakewalking nightmare crashes out the work. It’s perhaps Ravel’s late masterpiece, up there with the earlier Daphnis and Chloe.
We heard Ligeti’s 1967 Lontano in 2015 as part of the last concert the SWR ever gave. Here its distances – that’s what it means – beguile and demand. The NYO again with Benjamin play with the fresh conviction of a modernist orchestra. It’s an exciting, teasing work, more solid than his breakthrough pieces like Atmospheres from 1961, though the intro with instruments like points of light blending sounds a development from such works. But it’s the dramatic and perspectival angle that marks this piece as playful, something you can really understand in shape and affect, that marks Ligeti out from Darmstadt diehards. The cut-offs, the sudden heftier interjections, the way a halo erupts at the end with a hole in it that blacks out from the centre: all this shows why Ligeti’s work is as enduring as its laughter out of the dark Ligeti knew in the 1940s.
Finally Debussy’s La Mer in a glinting sea-flecked imagining Benjamin turns into ‘pure’ music. Or does he? I detect a more Romantic conductor in Benjamin than perhaps his 1980s persona would have admitted to. Here the sweep and thruck of Debussy’s vision is never lingered over but pointillistic flickers noted with aphoristic brilliance as Benjamin sweeps the NYO through a notably swift reading that Debussy always intended.
You can tell the NYO love this piece and both woodwind and particularly alter the brass get a workout on par with anything else tonight. In fact the brass get the lion’s share of virtuosity perhaps, but then you remember the bass clarinets, the chirping woodwinds and also in La Mer, luscious strings. They don’t sound undernourished playing at full tilt.
This is an outstanding concert, and it’s not just that one hopes long may this association continue. We need Benjamin to inspire young players to fall in love with modern works not least his own.