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BENJAMIN INTERNATIONAL South Bank Centre, 18-23 May 2005

Pierre Boulez Éclat/Multiples
Unsuk Chin Cantatrix Sopranica world premiere
Beat Furrer Still London premiere

George Benjamin conductor
Anu Komsi soprano
Piia Komsi soprano
Andrew Watts counter tenor

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 10 a.m. 18 May 2005

James Wood Autumn Voices
Hans Abrahamsen Concerto for Piano and Orchestra London premiere
George Benjamin Three Miniatures for Solo Violin
Gérard Grisey Quatre chants pour franchir le Seuil

George Benjamin conductor
Carolin Widmann violin
Anne Marie Abildskov piano
Valdine Anderson soprano
Sound Intermedia

Queen Elizabeth Hall 7.45pm, 23 May 2005

George Benjamin curated a trio of concerts programmed to counter UK's relative ignorance of new music on the continent. Unable to attend the first, I was privileged to be allowed to the rehearsal, but not to review it. No one should object to my telling that it was enthralling to watch the precision and economy with which Benjamin took the rehearsal, never wasting a second nor losing the players' concentration, and in three engrossing hours melding three fiendishly difficult scores to high performance level.

Unsuk Chin's eight intricately woven songs were delightfully light-hearted and it was sheer pleasure to listen to their 20 minute span followed by more time spent tidying details in rehearsal.

I have complained repeatedly that plunging audiences into darkness is often counter productive, but in George Benjamin's final concert the lighting was managed perfectly, and the concentration of Carolin Widmann's solo violin playing was enhanced by seeing her in a pool of light. James Wood's subtle Autumn Voices, enjoyed recently in Stockholm, cast its spell again, with the composer at the console mediating his electronic 'songs of many birds'. Benjamin's own Miniatures are short, it may be, but they display the violin at its happiest, drawing on older methods and rich counterpoint, grateful to play as to hear.

Good to see the quirky Dane, Hans Abrahamsen, back in London and to hear his new piano concerto, with a build up at its centre to a 'fall over the edge of the abyss' at a 'drastic general pause'; original as was his music featured by London Sinfonietta many years ago.

Four Chants to Cross the Threshold was the last work of Gerard Grisey, one of the founders of the 'Spectral' movement, completed shortly before he died at 52. It is a sombre meditation on death, with uncommonly dark instrumentation, the whole proceeding slowly; something of a strain at the end of a full programme.

The soundworld is unique and there is an acclaimed recording [KAIROS 0012252KAI] which I have received from Codaex. This is undoubtedly 'difficult' music, and the notes by Peter Niklas Wilson and composer Philippe Hurel are hermetic and singularly unhelpful. It is however a musical world worth entering, even if somewhat marginal for 'ordinary listeners', whoever they are?

For first hearing, I advise starting with Track 3, where things begin to get livelier; La mort de la voix, text from the Greek poetess Erinna (c 350 B.C.) with powerful contributions from the unusual instrumental group to support the austere vocalisations of Catherine Dubosc.

Some busy critics have carped that Unsuk Chin's humour was too protracted in her eight songs; Keith Potter's reviews in The Independent (1) reflected exactly my reaction to her sophisticated wit, no less valuable for not being "serious", and (2) to the final concert of this valuable, concentrated festival.

See also reviews of the Arditti Quartet's recital.

© Peter Grahame Woolf