Southbank Centre* A life in music: Alan Rusbridger talks to George Benjamin
György Ligeti is not the first composer you would think of including in a weekend devoted to George Benjamin's works. But perhaps Benjamin's teacher Olivier Messiaen was thought too obvious a choice, while Pierre Boulez's music was surveyed on the South Bank just last autumn, so Ligeti it was: four of his greatest orchestral works, interleaved with five of Benjamin's, in concerts by the London Sinfonietta and the Philharmonia.
In any case, Benjamin is a lifelong admirer of the Hungarian's music, and conducted the first performance of Ligeti's final work, the haunted, mysterious Hamburg Concerto. It was one of the pieces included in the weekend, with Michael Thompson playing the treacherous solo part and Nicholas Collon conducting the Sinfonietta.
The juxtaposition did not always work in the British composer's favour. Putting Ligeti's exquisite Melodien, in which not a note is misplaced, just before what has always seemed one of Benjamin's less successful works, Antara (from 1987), with its sampled panpipes confronting a pair of modern flutes, only emphasises the latter work's longueurs. Also, opening the Philharmonia's concert with what is essentially an occasional piece – Benjamin's Jubilation, written in 1985 for a large children's group including choirs, brass, percussion and recorders, as well as a professional symphony orchestra – and then following it with Ligeti's dark-hued, fragile Double Concerto for flute and oboe, (Samuel Coles and Gordon Hunt were the soloists)proved too jolting a change of perspective.
But the weekend did contain wonderful things. Benjamin's first orchestral work, Ringed By the Flat Horizon, sounds just as astonishingly assured now as it did at its first performance in Cambridge in 1980, when the composer was a 20-year-old undergraduate. And there is the same clarity of harmonic thinking and vivid aural imagination in Palimpsests, the pair of orchestral studies he wrote for Boulez and the LSO more than 20 years later. Both works were superbly played by the Philharmonia with Benjamin conducting.
With the premiere of Benjamin's new opera just a couple of months away, he could be forgiven for not producing a new piece for this London celebration. The closest to a premiere was the Duet for piano and orchestra, in which Tamara Stefanovich was the soloist with the Sinfonietta. Benjamin seems to have tweaked its ending since the first performance in 2008, so it now ends definitively rather than just slipping away. It remains enigmatic, though, always promising more substance – and more you want, because what is there is so freshly imagined, and so unlike anything else.
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