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George Benjamin Piano Figures; Viola, Viola; At First Light; A Mind of Winter;Palimpsests

George Benjamin conductor/piano
Claire Booth soprano
Paul Silverthorne & Eniko Magyar violas
London Sinfonietta/Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Matthias Sperling choreographer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 7 February 2009

This celebratory concert for George Benjamin's 50th birthday was preceded by an interview in the Foyer in which he explained his predelictions and philosophy as composer and teacher. He doesn't think he'll ever compose a string quartet, despite many requests... He is an avid reader and believes his composition pupils should seek to absorb 'everything', and from all the arts, on the way to discovering their own individualities with his gentle and unassertive guidance.

This concert grew from the tiny piano piece which begins Piano Figures (newly released CD recommended below). Those were played by the pianist/conductor composer himself almost in the dark at the back of the QE stage, cleared to make room for the dancers who followed. Gradually forces were amassed, to culminate with those required for the extravagantly scored Palimpsets, which is on that account not likely to be performed often.

Benjamin works slowly and is a meticulous craftsman. He avoids repeating himself and tries to solve new problems with every work; his style has therefore continued to change. He is not likely to burden the inheritors of his legacy with works to be sifted running to hundreds of Op. Nos., as so many composers seem to feel the need. Excellent on-line audio introductions by Benjamin himself are recommended - far better than lengthy paraphrases of the programme notes by me...

We found the first half made a slow start. Viola, viola was well delivered by Paul Silverthorne with Eniko Magyar; alongside, two dancers "interpreting" it in abstract modern dance mode, the two artforms in parallel but really unconnected... At first light (1982) represented Benjamin in uncompromising modernist vein, its connections with the Turner picture which prompted its composition less than self evident. Between items, there were the necessary platform and BBC microphone rearrangements which are part and parcel of contemporary music concerts, taking up a disproportionate amount of time.

The second half was altogether more engaging. A Mind of Winter had the always compelling Claire Booth depicting Wallace Stevens' uncomprehending snowman beneath an icy January sun (particularly apt this year !) and Palimpsest (-2002) made for a thrilling finish. Benjamin's skill in achieving clarity between the layers of simultaneous musics from a large wind-heavy orchestra based upon eight double-basses made for a thrilling experience in the relatively small QEH, and for an appreciative ovation from an audience of connoisseurs which deservedly rivalled those earlier in the week for Barenboim in the hall next door...

Peter Grahame Woolf

Photo:Betty Freer

Benjamin piano figures

Nimbus NI 1528

A limited edition CD of ten useful and attractive piano teaching pieces were recorded by the composer and released to celebrate his 50th birthday; just 100 signed copies were pressed.

Conceived for the hands of young pianists, they range from simple to virtuosic and will enhance young piano pupils' musicianship alongside the harder ones which will give them technical challenges to progress their keyboard prowess.


Peter Grahame Woolf

Hear George Benjamin hmself introduce them on line