Between 4-10 December George Benjamin was celebrated at the fourth edition of the Festival des Volques, Nîmes. It concludes a year that has seen several portraits of Benjamin, including Aix-en-Provence, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, an Ensemble Modern tour celebrating their longstanding collaboration with the composer-conductor, and, most recently at Finnish Radio Symphony. The focus at Les Volques was brought to life by an elite lineup of soloists and performers – many of whom are longstanding Benjamin collaborators – including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Isabelle Faust, Cédric Tiberghien, and Alphonse Cemin.
The Festival presented Benjamin’s work across seven concerts, part of a double portrait alongside Mozart, following previous pairings of Lachenmann and Schubert, Beethoven and Manoury, and Schumann with Jolas. It opened with a performance of At First Light, performed by soloists from Ensemble Sarbacanes conducted by Raphaël Merlin. The 20-minute piece is scored for 14 players, inspired by Turner’s painting Norham Castle, Sunrise, and cast in three movements. At First Light is a contemplation of dawn, a celebration of the colours and noises of daybreak, and examines the movement between clearly-defined musical ‘solid objects’ and a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound.
Benjamin’s Octet was also performed at the Cathédrale on 9 December. Composed in 1978, it is among Benjamin’s earliest works, and was presented as part of his London debut in 1979 at the Purcell Room. Scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, celesta and four strings, the 10-minute work was Benjamin’s attempt to integrate what he had learned during his studies in Paris on an instrumental canvas – it has a vibrant, scherzando character, punctuated by moments of strident lyricism. It appeared alongside Viola, Viola (1997), performed by Carole Roth and Laurent Camatte, who reprised the piece the following day. The 9-minute work is a technical and compositional tour-de-force for the instrument, fiery, and energetic in character, and animated within by multi-layered contrapuntal writing.
Shadowlines (2001) also received two performances – one from Cédric Tiberghien and another from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who premiered the work in 2003. The 15-minute piece is a set of six canons of remarkable drama and invention, with Benjamin’s manipulation of the basic material going far beyond the usual procedures of transposition and invention, with a title suggestive of the hidden processes at work. Aimard also performed Benjamin’s Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm (1985) and Piano Figures (2004) in his 8 December programme – complemented by Jean-Francois Heisser’s rendition of Benjamin’s other piano works Relativity Rag (1984) and Meditation on Haydn’s Name (1982) on 10 December.
On 8 December Sharon Carty sang Upon Silence for mezzo soprano and string ensemble, with Alphonse Cemin conducting. The 10-minute work, a setting of W.B. Yeats’ The Long Legged Fly, was originally composed for Susan Bickley and Fretwork’s five viols, but also exists in a 1991 transcription for two violas, three cellos, and two double basses. That version, performed in Nîmes, uses the uses the expanded forces to evoke the sound of the six-stringed viols which orbit the central melismatic vocal line.
It was paired with Benjamin’s Flight (1979) for solo flute, again programmed twice - first from Marion Ralincourt (alongside Tiberghien) and later in the festival by Gionata Sgambar. 9 December saw performances of Benjamin’s music for violin – the Sonata for violin and piano (1977) from Jean-Francois Heisser and Aude Périn-Dureau, and the Three Miniatures for solo violin (2001) from Isabelle Faust. The 23-minute Sonata is among Benjamin’s earliest published works, composed while he was still at school.