Benjamin: Into the Little Hill, Dance Figures, Sometime Voices
Benjamin long held the desire to write an opera, and Into the Little Hill resulted from his meeting with playwright Martin Crimp. Since its premiere, given at the Festival d'Automne in Paris last November, it has garnered acclaim from all quarters.
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There are quite a few characters here: the Crowd, the Minister, the Stranger, a Mother, a Child, and the town's collective Mothers and Children. However, Benjamin has written for only two singers, a soprano and a contralto, who must change between these roles. As a result, listeners may be confused by what is happening on stage, and I for one am getting a little tired of all these recent operas which have chosen to use only two or three singers, apparently to save on production costs even if the storytelling suffers. Played by a small ensemble of 15 players, Benjamin's music is in a post-Messiaen modernist style. There is prominent use of low winds (bass flute, double-bass clarinet, two basset horns), which along with the contralto gives the entire opera a somewhat mournful air. As much as I'd like to get into this opera on a contemporary theme, the music simply isn't particulary involving. I don't need classic opera "tunes" and I listen to a lot of modernism, but I'm turned off by the invariably dragging tempos and single-track mood.
Since the opera is only 40 minutes long, there is room on this disc for other works, and I enjoyed the filler more. "Sometime Voices" for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1996) sets Caliban's speech from Shakespeare's Tempest in which he describes a magical music pervading the island: "Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices..." The orchestral writing consists of a series of different orchestral textures, richly orchestrated but diffuse like the environment that Caliban depicts. Dietrich Henschel gives a confident performance, with the only regret being the sound quality: Nimbus has simply taken an old radio recording that is not up to the standards of commercial release, and the choir's role is hard to gauge.
"Dance Figures" (2004) is a nine-movement suite, each of which has a different ambiance, but each of which smoothly flow into the next. The opening "Spell" is Bartokian night music. "Recit" places an oboe and then a clarinet in the spotlight. "Interruptions" has delicate writing suddenly trampled on by dissonance. "Hammers" sounds like old-time industry-inspired futurism. "Olicantus", a birthday tribute to Olivier Knussen (recorded separately on an earlier disc), is the longest of the movements, slow and mainly in the low registers. This too is a live recording with coughing, which is really a pity, as this piece could shine in a better sound quality.
As long as there are no competing recordings of "Sometime Voices" and "Dance Figures", I might as well give this disc a middle rating, but George Benjamin fans deserve better.