The last piece on the programme is Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, one of the pieces in my Music Since 1960 series, so I’m going to talk about that separately in a post or two.
To be honest the other three pieces, James Wood’s Autumn Voices, 2001, Hans Abrahamsen’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, 2000, and George Benjamin’s Three Miniatures for solo violin, 2001, pale into a certain insignificance; but only because of the strength of their neighbour.
In order of size, then. Benjamin’s three miniatures, ‘Lullaby for Lalit’, ‘A Canon for Sally’ and ‘Lauer Lied’, were written for three friends of the composer. In a pre-concert discussion, Benjamin was keen to characterise them as extremely difficult pieces; Carolin Widmann, who was a particular star of the concert, brought them off well. The complexity of the pieces derives from Benjamin’s desire to add harmony to the solo violin line – not the implied harmony of Bach’s unaccompanied cello, but actual harmony. In the third movement in particular this required the soloist to maintain a steady ostinato accompaniment in left-hand pizzicato and a sustained arco song in the right. Impressive as this was – fireworks of a very gentle sort – for me the Lullaby was the most effective movement. Benjamin describes it as “a slow and simple melody, accompanied by open strings, which transforms into ribbons of harmonies at its end,” and the ribbons neatly switch around sustained common tones to produce the most purely harmonic music of the work.
Autumn Voices, another work requiring Widmann’s solo violin – this time with tape accompaniment – was particularly good. At 18 minutes, it’s a big work for such limited forces, and Widmann, spotlit in a dark auditorium, must take a great deal of credit for helping sustain such a span. Wood was asked before the concert about his choice of a tape over live electronics – “with live electronics so much can go wrong” – but there was a careful synergy between ‘dead’ tape and live performer written into the work. Although one could sense the passages in which a hidden pulse was needed to lock violin and tape together, this merely helped articulate and relate larger areas of the work. In the main the tape sounded between the violin notes, and chirruped and burbled like the broken pipe organ of some insect cathedral. I want to hear this again.
Abrahamsen’s Concerto was his first public work written after a ten-year period of almost complete compositional abstinence. The composer’s wife, Anne Marie Abildskov, was the soloist, and it was she who persuaded him that he could write the piece. It is, clearly, a considerably personal achievement, and this sense is reinforced by the large number of quotations, from Abrahamsen’s own works and by others such as Ligeti and Mahler – delving into those musical memories that sustained him during his creative silence perhaps? The opening of the piece “starts entirely as I usually start, with this filigree in the piano and many simultaneous layers.” It’s hard, with his wife as the intended soloist, not to imagine the composer participating as an active character in narrative of the piece. His embodiment is, therefore, the piano and it is a feature of the work that the piano plays almost constantly throughout – Abrahamsen is delighted with the one moment at which it stops: at the beginning of the fourth movement, a post-minimal filigree rather like the opening, “the piano stirs up an anthill”, takes a break, and for the first time listens to the orchestral music that falls away from its prompting. There is no programme to the work, but the circumstances of its composition and performance hint at readings like this. Unfortunately as a whole the work ends feeling a little slight, and in contrast with the Wood, too little made of much material – witness the end of the piece which felt like it had come a few minutes too early, and caught all of us on the hop.