Anu Komsi / Hilary Summers

George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

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George Benjamin's 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill, with a libretto by Martin Crimp, is an updated version of the story of the Pied Piper, but it's considerably darker both in its details and its overall tone. The score is typical of Benjamin -- spare, austere, and meticulously calibrated -- but emotionally potent. Two singers, a soprano and contralto, share all the parts. Benjamin's vocal writing is spiky and pushes at the extremes of the singers' ranges, but his text setting is so expert and his instrumentation so transparent that almost all of the words are comprehensible. It helps immensely that his singers, Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers, have voices with spot-on intonation, and the ability to project the text with remarkable clarity. It's a very creepy piece, even without the visual element, and the evocative playing of Ensemble Modern, conducted by Franck Ollu, beautifully conveys its uneasy, menacing tone. Oliver Knussen leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a virtuosic performance of Dance Figures: Nine choreographic scenes for orchestra, which creates a dramatic, similarly sinister effect. This is not light listening, or for anyone looking for music that's "pretty," but for listeners who aren't daunted by challenges of modernism, Benjamin's music in these two works is rewarding in the clarity and power of its dark vision. Sometimes Voices, a setting of three and a half lines from Caliban's speech in The Tempest, "The isle is full of noises..." for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, on the other hand, is a work of gripping immediacy and appeal. His setting of the character's description of his nocturnal aural hallucinations, "Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices..." is eccentrically melismatic, with a space between every word, but it tellingly depicts Caliban's halting gruffness. The crystalline web of instrumental and vocal sounds that Benjamin creates to evoke the dream has an ethereal, scary beauty that's so compelling that the listener is likely to resonate with Caliban's sentiment, "when I waked, I cried to dream again," that closes the work. This piece is a stunner, performed with sparkling brilliance by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Rundfunkchor Berlin, conducted by Kent Nagano. The second two works were recorded at live performances, so there is a little audience noise, but otherwise the sound is clean and bright.

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