by Rachel Beaumont

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Aimard surprise: George Benjamin and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

Sir George Benjamin: A Duet and a Dream
George Benjamin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, James Hall and Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall
Stalls A24, £17.10
5 March 2020
Southbank page

Knussen, Choral
Messiaen, ‘Le merle bleu’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux
Benjamin, Duet for piano and orchestra
Benjamin, Dream of the Song
Janáček, Sinfonietta

I felt a bit of a noob as I traipsed down to the empty front row of the Royal Festival Hall and acquired my seat in the middle of it. But the ticket was cheap(er) and I’ve never sat there before – and, at least, for the first half of the programme, it answered my desire from earlier in the evening to sit with my head inside the piano, here for Aimard’s as ever wondrous Messiaen. And for the second half I was able to retreat to the third row so that I wasn’t sitting right under singer James Hall’s nose. I’m not sure it’s an experience to be repeated for anything other than an exclusively Aimard show.

I bought this ticket on the basis of the Benjamin without even checking the programme, a dangerous habit in general but paying off here with a carefully constructed set. Out of very many things to enjoy the highlight was unquestionably the Messiaen: a small dose, if you like, and interestingly juxtaposed to Benjamin’s piano concerto to the advantage of each. Right up close I don’t doubt there are things you lose with solo piano – but the payoff is the intimacy of a recording combined with the immediacy of live performance. Aimard’s playing was blisteringly precise and beautifully coloured, a sensuous revelment in Messiaen’s many marvels.

Both Benjamins impressed, as usual, with the immaculacy of their construction, even if the Philharmonia’s performance was scrappy at times. Neither piece was known to me and both, unsurprisingly, warrant careful relistening. For a first impression of the piano concerto, my proximity probably didn’t give me a good idea of the intended balance; but I enjoyed what felt like its steadily growing, glowering malevolence, and am surprised to learn of its temporal distance from Lessons in Love and Violence given what felt like many resurfacings of ideas. For Dream I was almost distracted by countertenor Hall’s excellence to properly think my way through the piece, and I think it likes some thinking. I’ve heard of Hall but this is my first time listening in the flesh: I was mightily impressed at his diction, accuracy and the virility of his sound. I’d be interested to know how well it travelled to the back of the hall. He looked needlessly nervous, understandable with such a task before him but quite undeserved for the quality of his singing.

I usually find a Knussen piece a morsel of rare delight; while I enjoyed Choral a lot and certainly see its inspiration of a distant funeral cortège, it didn’t hold my attention as I would have expected – perhaps a victim of my not being able to see more than the shoes of most performers. Further to my shame, I think I may never have heard Janáček’s Sinfonietta live before. I’m not sure how I could have managed such a feat but I’m glad the omission has been rectified, without conscious decision. Perhaps primarily on the back of yesterday’s concert I heard a lot of Barry in the piece, lifted slightly on its gravitation to tonality but pleasingly persistent nonetheless. I’ve often found Janáček’s operas hard work but the Sinfonietta is a very cool piece.

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