Benjamin: A Dream of England; Boulez: Domaines; Newland: Monotonous Forest; Cage: Radio Music etc.

Radius ensemble

Wigmore Hall, 22 June 2009 4 stars

Tim BenjaminRadius are a relatively young ensemble set up by the composer Tim Benjamin. They have a bisected speciality; to commission and perform new works, and to explore the canon of twentieth-century musical composition.

This dual purpose was in clear evidence in the programming for their recent concert at the Wigmore Hall. Two world premieres were offset with some canonical modern music. Though the concert was somewhat overlong and the transitions between pieces necessarily a little gauche at times, the conception worked rather well. The differing aesthetic principles were tackled with a good deal of skill and creativity by the performers, and the diversity made for an eclectic, shape-shifting concert.

Sarah Watts opened proceedings with a performance of Boulez' Domaines in its solo clarinet version. Watts gave a thoughtful, methodical reading that took care to properly service each gesture. The range of expression was secure, with the repeated multiphonics and occasional high harmonics extending the colouristic palette well. Despite a clear assiduity in the performance you felt as if Watts was somewhat struggling against the architecture of the piece, with the fragmented form and the over-determination of the formula of composition weighing down the struggle for fluency. Domaines has little of the rich colours of Sur Incises or the awe of Anthèmes, but the steady and ever-more expansive style of this performance was convincing. It began to make particular sense in the second half, where all the palindromes and echoes built into something more than merely rupture, and a certain poetry became evident.

Paul Newland's Monotonous Forest is a Radius commission that was here being given its world premiere. Written for trio of cello, piano, and percussion, it is a curiously stark but also luscious piece that concentrates almost entirely on a sensuous overlay of gently tumbling micro-gestures made of barely there efflorescence. The obvious forbears for this piece, Feldman and Sciarrino, were constantly called to mind by the insistent character of acrid dreaminess in the music, but Newland should be applauded for having the courage of his convictions and taking this sort of sensibility to the limit. Only once or twice does the piece rise above pianissimo, or the tessitura go down into the middle register. The acoustic of the Hall suited the chiming vibes and piano well, though the music would have been better served by a more integrated performance; too often the harmonics from Rosie Banks' cello and, particularly, the perfumed gestures of piano and percussion (John Reid and Owen Gunnell) felt out of sync with each other. The players would have done well to stick to a more unified push and pull of dynamic and downbeat.

John ReidRounding out the first half was a peculiar wedding of two composers, Messiaen and Cage. Cage's Telephones and Birds instructs performers, as is common in his work of course, to consult the I Ching to determine certain parameters of performance regarding the loosely assorted recorded samples of birds and of calls to hotlines for sightings of rare birds. Here Radius cleverly substituted recordings of birds for performances of birds, specifically the pianist John Reid performing some of Messiaen's transcriptions of bird calls. As with other pieces of this nature the tenor of the event was light hearted and humble, with performers and audience having to open themselves up to the serendipities of chance and heavily circumscribed improvisation (I use the word deliberately here) in the interlocking modalities of notation and indeterminacy.

Many felicitous moments arose; the inaudibility and esotericism of the content of the speeches meant that the chirping and singing piano sounded curiously apposite in relation to the voices. Reid's subsequent playing of L'Alouette Lulu from Catalogue d'Oiseaux rounded out this segment of the concert very well; the pianist displayed a nimble touch and beauty of tone, allied to a firmness of articulation that exhibited none of the haughtiness that Pierre-Laurent Aimard sometimes conveys in this music.

The same sense of humility and of the industriousness of nature that was on display in the telephone piece imbued Cage's Radio Music after the break. The four performers, including the composers Benjamin and Newland, seemed to enjoy themselves in the tumbling accidents of sound and static that arose from the composer’s very particular (though totally abstract) instructions on the tuning of the four radios to constantly changing frequencies. Interestingly, a real sense of musical form was in evidence; repetition, variance of weight, shifting densities, cracks in syntax, but I have to say I think the performers were too polite. They seemed to tiptoe a little around each other, and the radios, for my taste, were simply not loud enough in the comparatively vast hall.

Radio Music proved to be hors d'oeuvres for the meat of the second half, the world premiere of Tim Benjamin’s tightly conceived narrative piece for actor and five musicians, A Dream of England. Raymond Blankenhorn as the young Charles Darwin recited/performed passages of text from Darwin's journals and collected letters dating from the naturalist's five year journey around (primarily) Southern America on the H.M.S Beagle. The quintet of musicians (the four mentioned thus far with Watts now on bass clarinet, and an assured Adam Walker on flute) supplied commentary and contrast sometimes behind the voice, but most often between the paragraphs of text.

The performance engaged throughout; despite one or two nervy moments and a conspicuous early entry towards the end, Blankenhorn proved charming. He was interesting and interested without ever being too forward in the characterisation. The music was the most impressive we'd heard all night. The pungent repeating figures in piano and winds gave a flinty edge to the musical annotations, whilst the performers were full of poise and purpose. Benjamin maintained a variety in the form which ensured the work kept its hold to the end: often the music slyly undercut or simply remained calmly neutral from Darwin's blithe statements about the instrumentality of animals, or his elegantly imperial attitudes to indigenous tribes and to slavery (casual, kind but oh so self-rewardingly noble). At crucial points however Benjamin shook off this neutral approach and inserted himself into the text. To whit: the music suddenly becomes quiescent and brutal after a particular cruelty regarding a condor bird is announced, or at the end, wonderfully, when Darwin glories in British Civilisation rising up to the full glory of its destiny, and the music sardonically steams up a scale in mordant majesty. A strong end to an eclectic and often captivating concert.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Tim Benjamin by Gabrielle Turner, John Reid

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