'Into the Little Hill' reviews

‘…it was the eerie beauty and uncanny originality of the music that made the dominant impression on me. The scoring is remarkable – for a sort of ‘alienated’ folk band … There are passages of ethereal delicacy, silken slowness, but these are contrasted with sudden fierceness, as in Benjamin’s recent orchestral Palimpsests.  Bass timbres are beguiling, the tutti sound is at once bizarre and delectable: I wanted more of it.'
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 3 December 2006

‘It is a slender, deceptively simple piece. It is the very economy of means – the action is played out around the ensemble, with the two singers sharing the narration and playing all the roles with a minimum of props – that gives the work its elegance and poetic power… If the political resonances are clear enough Crimp never labours them, while the deftness of Benjamin’s vocal writing weaves it into a spellbinding piece of storytelling. Each role is effortlessly characterised: the minister’s delivery clipped, matter-of-fact; the stranger’s soprano lines spiralling ever higher. All are wrapped in the most luminous score, subtly coloured by basset horns, cornets and a cimbalom, and later by banjo and mandolin too, while the stranger’s seductive music is given to a solo bass flute snaking through the textures.  If composing for the stage has opened up new areas of expression for Benjamin, the result is more ravishing than anyone could possibly have imagined.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 25 November 2006

'George Benjamin’s score is a miracle…'

‘In my critical career, I’ve witnessed the birth of several fine new operas But in all that time I have never heard or seen anything so startlingly or brilliantly original as Into the Little Hill.  ‘Masterpiece’ is not a word to fling about, but I’m tempted … Conductor, instrumentalists and performers are integrated on stage, the singers being two uncostumed women who pace up and down sodium-lit catwalks as they narrate the story and enact it, playing several different characters and combining to embody the chorus.  George Benjamin’s score is a miracle.  Fifteen players - here drawn from the Ensemble Modern - are used to create a hyper-intense sound world.  Not a note is wasted or superfluous - Benjamin’s ear is unerringly precise, and the sonorities he conjures up by combining conventional instruments with basset-horn, flugelhorn and cimbalom are quite ravishing.  But this isn’t an orchestral showpiece.  The vocal lines are the driving force, and although the writing is often angular and abrupt, it is also richly expressive and alluring…if you have any serious interest in opera, you simply must hear it.’
The Daily Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 18 June 2007

‘…there’s always a place for music this strong, this tensile and expressive.  The interweaving of voices and instruments, song and narration, belatedly announces Benjamin as an outstanding opera talent; and with an instrumentation embracing two basset horns, tingling cimbalom, and the earthworm gropings of the contrabass clarinet … Ensemble Modern and the conductor Franck Ollu delivered the goods with pride …Benjamin should definitely write more operas.’
The Times (Geoff Brown), 21 April 2008

‘George Benjamin’s ‘lyric tale’
Into the Little Hill is a jewel-like piece of music-theatre … Martin Crimp’s enigmatic and contemporary re-imagining of the Pied Piper fable has been ravishingly illuminated by George Benjamin’s music.  The scoring is slight, with the 15 instrumentalists of the Ensemble Modern often doubling on exotic instruments, and only two singers.  But what a pair.  The Crowd music is punchy and abrasive, the Stranger’s chillingly seductive, the Minister’s loftily arrogant and the Minister’s Wife (when she realises her child has gone) stumbling and numb.  But this is to simplify a remarkable sound-world in which complex characterisations and layers are thrillingly refined … there is no lack of realism and impact in Into the Little Hill when the two vocalists project the words of the story and its emotional subtext so powerfully and convincingly.  The Ensemble Modern, under Franck Ollu, makes a marvellously lucid contribution, lyrically intense and always perfectly balanced.  The wealth of invention, remarkable textural ingenuity and particularly imaginative use of the instruments mark out the score as a miniature masterpiece.’
The Independent (Lynne Walker), 1 May 2008

‘When I first heard George Benjamin’s one-act opera Into the Little Hill two years ago, I tentatively suggested that it might be a masterpiece … A second hearing, in a superb performance by the Opera Group authoritatively conducted by the composer, confirms my judgement that this is something quite exceptional, both in the originality of its form and the depth of its inspiration.  Benjamin’s score inhabits the text with absolute assurance: not a note is wasted, the dramatic pacing is impeccable controlled.  The word setting is always pellucid and sometimes lyrical, the orchestration … luminous, subtle and delicate.  Most strikingly imaginative of all, however, is the way that Benjamin creates a world of sound, quite unlike any other … it left me both stunned and elated.  A masterpiece, no question.’
The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 16 February 2009

‘The word setting is always pellucid and sometimes lyrical, the orchestration … luminous, subtle and delicate.  Most strikingly imaginative of all, however, is the way that Benjamin creates a world of sound, quite unlike any other.…’
The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen)
 
‘If the best test for any music is whether it retains its power whatever the circumstances, then Benjamin’s score passed triumphantly.  It is a transcendentally beautiful piece, perfectly scaled to Martin Crimp’s taut libretto … Benjamin’s conducting brought out pungent colours in the ensemble writing that enhanced the dramatic power more than ever.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 16 February 2009

‘…it was mesmerising.  There was nowhere to hide from Booth’s marvelously angry, protesting Child and Bickley’s mendacious Minister, slyly making a pact to exterminate the rats … Nor from the visceral power of Benjamin’s score – by turns eerie, abrasive, sad and lyrical.’
The Times (Richard Morrison), 16 February 2009

Into the Little Hill came across as a haunting, musically complex, ingeniously scored and often disturbing piece.  In one stroke, Mr Benjamin is claiming a place amid the rich experimental operatic works of British composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir … the overall impact of the female voices against the colourful chamber ensemble, rich with the unusual sonorities of a bass flute and even a banjo, conveyed the emotional and psychological force that the opera was after.  This score confirmed earlier impressions of Mr Benjamin’s formidable music.  There are elements of Berg - like chromaticism, the zigzagging atonal lines of the Boulez school, wondrous French - imbued sonorities and the nitty-gritty of intricate contrapuntal writing for the instruments.  Though Mr Benjamin does not disguise the sources of his inspiration, his audacious music sounds fresh and authentic.’
The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 28 July 2007

‘The novel beauties of the instrumental writing, such as the admixture of cymbals to an eerie duet of basset horns, or enigmatic conversations between a bass flute and a cimbalom, cast a spell, yet the net effect was of loveliness coiled into dread.’
The New Yorker (Alex Ross), 20 August 2007
 
‘George Benjamin doles out his music in dark, powerful droplets …’
Newsday (Justin Davidson)

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