On 23 and 25 August George Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra received two performances from Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Grafenegg and Wiesbaden. The former was the Austrian premiere of the piece, which debuted in 2021 at the BBC Proms with the same orchestra, conducted by the composer. 

Benjamin has said that the piece attempts “to conjure a trace of the energy, humour, and spirit” of its dedicatee Oliver Knussen. It is varied and dynamic across an unbroken 17-minute span, with skittish lines playing against still, suspended ones. Its various instrumental protagonists play multiple roles – both dramatic and sonoric – including a volatile solo tuba, elaborate horn duos, bubbling clarinets and two pairs of rumbling timpani. Most prominent of all are the impassioned first violins, who almost have the last word during the work’s tranquil conclusion.

Watch Benjamin conduct the Philharmonique de Radio France in the Concerto for Orchestra here. The full score of the Concerto for Orchestra was published in 2022 and is available to purchase here. It was commissioned by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation and the Karolina Blaberg Foundation, and BBC Radio 3.

Harding conducted the French premiere of Benjamin’s Dream of the Song with the Orchestre de Paris, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, and countertenor Bejun Mehta at the Philharmonie as part of the 2016 Festival d’Automne. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra have been integral to the creation of Benjamin’s acclaimed stage works, premiering Written on Skin and Picture a day like this at the Aix Festival (2012 and 2023). Their previous forays into Benjamin’s orchestral repertoire include piano concerto Duet, A Mind of Winter for soprano and orchestra, and Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra.

Further performances of the Concerto this autumn include the Finnish premiere of the work from Nicholas Collon and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on 1 November, as part of a festival focus on the composer, including concert performances of operas Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin.  Susanna Mälkki and the London Symphony Orchestra revisit the Concerto at the Barbican on 30 November, following their performance of it this summer at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Benjamin himself conducts the Concerto for Orchestra with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on 1 December in Amsterdam.

It is everything we have come to expect from Benjamin, music that has much to say but never wastes its breath... the ideas building on each other, dying out, forming afresh, and yet the atmosphere is palpably threatening, with ominous low brass, fearfully scampering strings and climaxes that build to peaks of tension. Through a glass darkly we glimpse the same worlds as Benjamin’s two full-length operas

Financial Times (Richard Fairman), 31 August 2021

As with everything Benjamin writes, the concerto gleams, all the sonic ingredients individuated, clarity and intricate detail turning every player into a soloist…Dancing through the concerto’s buoyant, conversational exchange, dominating all, is the tuba… After a gnarly orchestral climax, the tuba plays a long, triple fortissimo low note, then falls silent, leaving the rest of the ensemble, spare and ethereal, to spin into the ether, crotales ringing out softly

The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 4 September 2021