In September George Benjamin and Ensemble Modern celebrated thirty years of collaboration with a European tour, presenting three different programmes at Berlin’s Philharmonie, London’s Wigmore Hall, the Cologne Philharmonie, Frankfurt’s Alte Oper, and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, where the tour concluded on 16 September. Benjamin discusses his longstanding partnership with Ensemble Modern here.
On 3 and 10 September soprano Anna Prohaska joined Benjamin and the ensemble for performances of A Mind of Winter (1981) at Musikfest Berlin and Cologne, a 10-minute setting of Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man. Its snow-covered, frozen terrain is evoked through an immobile A minor chord, suspended cymbals, and string glissandi; the titular snowman is evoked by a muted piccolo trumpet around whom the soprano weaves slow, angular phrases. Listen to Prohaska’s performance from Musikfest Berlin here.
In July Anna Prohaska sang Zabelle in the world premiere of Picture a day like this at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Benjamin and Crimp’s latest collaboration, which made its UK debut in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House on 22 September. Watch the opera here on Medici.tv.
In London, Frankfurt, and Berlin Benjamin also conducted his Canon & Fugue, 2007 transcriptions of Bach’s Art of Fugue for an ensemble of nine players. Benjamin’s orchestration of Canon in Hypodiapason and Contrapunctus VII – flute, two horns and six strings – is the same as Boulez’s Mémoriale.
At the Concertgebouw Benjamin conducted a concert performance of Into the Little Hill, a lyric tale in two parts retelling the story of the Pied Piper that was Benjamin’s first collaboration with Martin Crimp. Helen Rasker and Keren Motseri sang the 40-minute piece. It is scored for soprano, contralto and ensemble of 15 players; the instrumental writing is given special colour by bass flute, a pair of basset horns, mandolin, banjo and cimbalom. The Amsterdam programme also featured Benjamin’s At First Light a 20-minute piece for a chamber orchestra of 14 players, inspired by Turner’s painting Norham Castle, Sunrise; Benjamin recorded the work with the group in 2004.
[Canon & Fugue] is marvellously weird, scored for spidery string pizzicati, prominent horn and eerie, glassy flute.
The Times (Neil Fisher), 14 September 2023
…the muted trumpet struck like a sharpened flint…Ensemble Modern shone with breathtaking precision, the extensive exploration of harmonics, along with brushed cymbal and vibraphone, creating the sense of exhalation in the morning air. As in Turner’s work, all paint attains the quality of light, so in Benjamin’s, all sound attains the quality of breath.
Bachtrack (Eleanor Knight), 18 September 2023
…unquestionably modernist Bach…There were many timbral delights and surprises, not least the way a combination of horn, violin, and viola sounded uncannily like an organ.
A Mind of Winter…proved an astonishingly accomplished piece from the word go, its orchestral sound world, icy yet full of life, immediately, as it were, ‘created’ and immanent. The composer’s use of the voice [was]…unquestionably vocal and daringly instrumental…
Seen and Heard International (Mark Berry), 3/4 September 2023