GEORGE BENJAMIN (b.1960): Written on Skin, Duet for Piano and Orchestra (Pierre-Laurent Aimard [piano]).
Catalogue Number: 08P081
Reference: NI 5885/6
Description: Martin Crimp's clever and involving text adapts a 13th-century story. A woman, Agnès, lives in obedient subjugation to her husband - euphemistically designated 'The Protector' - a wealthy landowner "addicted to purity and violence" who aspires to have his life celebrated in an illuminated book, and hires a maker of manuscripts - 'The Boy' - for this purpose. As a result of her interaction with this character, Agnès experiences an erotic awakening and freedom from thoughtless obedience. The husband murders the Boy and serves his heart to Agnès to eat; she remains defiant and commits suicide. The story is 'presented' by three Angels, who also act as a commenting chorus, and this, as well as the way that portions of the text have the characters speaking as though narrating their dialogue on the third person, rather than speaking directly, lends a certain distant, historically remote perspective to the action. Benjamin ingeniously reflects this with occasional suggestions - never imitation - of medieval music, and some highly inventive instrumentation, including the unearthly sound of the glass harmonica; in general the palette of orchestral colour is especially rich and varied, irresistibly suggestive of the luminous, exquisite hues of illuminated manuscripts. The music is driven by a vital, evolving sense of progressive harmony, somewhat indebted to the composer's mentor, Messiaen, no doubt, but as in all Benjamin's mature work, only intermittently and vaguely resembling the older composer's style. Also notable are the eloquent, superbly wrought vocal lines, naturally and effortlessly suited to the voices. The twelve-minute, highly concentrated and aptly named Duet explores the confluences and divergences of timbre, articulation and harmonic emphasis of piano and orchestra, treated as equal partners in dialogue. The music is restless, in constant, agitated motion, thoroughly exploiting the coloristic and expressive potential of both participants. 2 CDs for the price of 1. Libretto included. Christopher Purves (bass-baritone), Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Bejun Mehta (countertenor), Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo), Allan Clayton (tenor), Mahler Chamber Orchestra; George Benjamin.