This Nimbus collection of works by George Benjamin is a jewel, covering both early and later works, with the composer himself on piano in two works and three world-class performers in the rest. Unlike some other twentieth-century composers, Benjamin doesn't have one central "gimmick"; he simply inherits the range of twentieth-century developments and exploits them to the full towards fresh-sounding music.
"Shadowlines" (2001), a series of six canonic preludes for piano and performed here by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, came after half a decade studying Webern. Under the inspiration of the great Viennese master of crystalline miniatures, Benjamin set off to explore a world of strict technique, where the listener walks in a house of mirrors with paths setting off in many directions, unlike the "monodirectional thrust of classical and Romantic music". "Shadowlines" may be Benjamin's masterpiece, an whole world of emotion and intriguing technique packed into fifteen minutes.
"Viola, Viola" (1996) is, as its title suggests, a duo for two violas, here performed by Tabea Zimmerman and Antoine Tamesit. "My desire," writes Benjamin, "was to make you imagine, if you close your eyes, that there's a string ensemble on the platform." And indeed, its amazing what range of sounds that Benjamin pulls out of just two puny string instruments over the course of this ten-minute piece.
Two earlier piano pieces, performed by Benjamin himself, make an appearance here after the earlier disc offering them has fallen out of print. The "Piano Sonata" (1979) is Benjamin's earliest acknowledged piece, written when he was eighteen and still a student of Olivier Messiaen in Paris. It develops only one theme, but this theme is inaudible as such in the ferocious speed of much of the piece. Instead we get a colourful stream of resonances and types of attack, with the prevailing mood being somewhat similar to Boulez's second piano sonata (though without serialist syntax).
The cycle "Three studies for solo piano" (1982-1985) is much more heterogenous. The first, "Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm" (1985) takes the poetic concept of short-long and undoes it. The first note, a B flat, is long, hardly credible as the first note of an iamb, but it still counts as one since the following D flat is even longer. Elsewhere the first notes of given pairs are stressed, anathema in poetry, but the durations remain short-long. The following "Meditation on Hadyn's Name" consists only of oscillations, resonances, and arpeggios of a chord consisting of B-A-D-D-G, with a hauntingly beautiful result. The final "Relativity Rag" (1984) starts off with the tired rag formula, but adds some of Messiaen's rhythmical innovations and flies off into a wide range of sound.
As I write this, George Benjamin discs are only sparsely reviewed. I think it is a pity that such a fascinating composer is often overlooked, and I invite my fellow avant-garde fans to discover his work. While this disc might only involve three instruments, Benjamin works such magic with them that much of his aesthetic is revealed, making this a fine introduction.
(Verified purchase from a Chicago record shop.)