A beguiling 20-minute work for countertenor, women’s voices and orchestra, Dream of the Song, Benjamin’s first work since his ground-breaking opera Written on Skin, was premiered in September at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw by the countertenor Bejun Mehta, the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by its composer.
Employing a reduced orchestra (two oboes, four horns, two percussionists and two harps and strings), the work sets verse by three major poets who spent formative years in Granada; two Hebrew poets of mid-11th century, Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (sung by solo countertenor in English versions by Peter Cole), and Gabriel Garcia Lorca (sung by the female chorus in the original Spanish).
The volatile and frenetic first movement ‘The Pen’ displays the remarkable, transparent density which has become one of Benjamin’s hallmarks; blaring horns cut through an intricate web of string textures, whilst the countertenor’s florid melismas recall Upon Silence (a quite different mode from Benjamin’s operatic style).
The soundworld of the opera is more apparent elsewhere, whilst the baleful gongs and lacerating string harmonies of the fourth movement for women’s voices and orchestra only, which sets an incendiary passage of Lorca, owe something to the last of the Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra.
From the purely instrumental musics superimposed in Palimpsests to Written on Skin where ‘the white lines of the Saturday car park cover the heaped up dead’, the layering and interaction of past and present has been a recurring preoccupation for Benjamin. The inspired pairing of texts in this new work creates a rich, melancholy and strange poetic conjunction, expressed most beautifully in the final movement which, overlaying soloist and choir, offers two simultaneous visions of dawn, conceived a millennium apart.
Commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw, BBC and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the Festival d’Automne, the work receives its UK premiere on 18 March with Iestyn Davies, the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen as part of Benjamin at the Barbican, two days of concerts which also include a concert performance of Written on Skin.
‘Dream of the Song proved to be perfectly structured music of great beauty, fleet-footed and profound, varied and thoughtful... From the virtuosically poetical opening song to the concluding ode to daybreak, the fluid melodic lines fitted Mehta's bronzed voice like a glove. Benjamin possesses a passionate, almost fanatical, gift for tone colour… The reduced orchestra sounds mysterious and silvery, with an occasional well-placed punch from the horns or a plaintive oboe melody. The interaction between voice, choir and instruments was reminiscent of the game of sunlight on water, with fish just below the surface: sometimes you know exactly what you heard, and then the sounds subtly and inimitably flowed together again.’
NRC Handelsblad (Joe Stack), 28 September 2015
‘The music is fluid and layered… The most powerful section is the fourth, where the choir – in cutting long tones – declaim above stacked dissonances.’
De Volkskrant (Frits van der Waa), 28 September 2015
‘… very well made. It sounds like clockwork and develops in beautiful, bright lines. Benjamin can write a true melody and has – like Benjamin Britten – a talent for creating music that displays a barbed form of compassion.’
Het Parool (Roeland Hazedonk), 28 September 2015