George Benjamin is an English composer of my generation (born 1960). This Nimbus disc presents four of Benjamin's compositions, performed by the Ensemble Modern. You can't do better than that when it comes to contemporary music! Benjamin himself conducts the three longest pieces, and Oliver Knussen conducts the concluding work, "Olicantus," which Benjamin dedicated to Knussen.
The oldest composition included here is "At First Light," from 1982. In three parts of about 20 minutes total, the delicate opening could be sunrise, and the third part reaches a noisy climax with blaring horns. Recorded live in Salzburg in 1995, it is a bit too Debussian for my taste.
"Sudden Time" (1993 -- 14'37) was begun immediately thereafter, but set aside and not finally completed until ten years later. I find it the most satisfying of the four works, with clearly defined launching and landing sections, and a compelling journey through timeless space in between. It most clearly indicates Benjamin's promise, which has seemingly been unrealized, at least on disc.
The title work, "Palimpsests" (2003 -- 19'40), is in two parts, and the first part was composed as a 75th birthday present for Pierre Boulez, who first conducted it in February 2000. It features a rather stock juxtoposition, a trilling in the strings pitted against a menacing blast from the horns, both of which recur, but do not dominate the entire piece. I am more impressed by it now than when I first heard it -- the dynamics and contours are more interesting and compelling. The 4-minute "Olicantus" is the most recent work, a 50th birthday present for Oliver Knussen written in 2002.
According to the liner notes, Benjamin has toured with the Ensemble Modern, with a repertoire that includes Messiaen, Carter, Boulez, Rihm, and Benjamin, among others. As conductor, Benjamin has premiered works by Ligeti, Grisey and Rihm. He studied with Messiaen at a young formative age, is now a professor of composition at King's College in London, and has been honored in both France and Germany.
On paper, everything looks perfect as far as the composer's credentials and the quality of the musicians, providing of course that you like contemporary post-serialist music. Which I do. But I find that Benjamin lacks a vision, a unique voice. He is obviously immersed in the avant-garde, and has absorbed it. It is altogether possible that he is even innovating in these pieces in some way unknown to me, but if so, the innovation/s simply is/are not tremendously compelling. Overall, it sounds somewhat generic, as if focused more on what it is *not* doing (ie, utilizing tonality, melody, etcetera) than on what it *is* doing.
Based on this disc, the filigree Benjamin is adding to the avant-garde are not noticeable enough warrant much excitement among contemporary music lovers. I can recommend it only to those insatiably curious about every avant-garde possibility under the sun.