- Performer: Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Christopher Purves, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton
- Orchestra: Mahler Chamber Orchestra
- Conductor: George Benjamin
- Composer: George Benjamin
- Audio CD (4 Feb. 2013)
- Number of Discs: 2
- Label: Nimbus
- ASIN: B009VECK8Q
- Other Editions: MP3 Download
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 34,523 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
George Benjamin, Written on Skin, Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2 CD set)
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Written On Skin An Opera in Three Parts Written on Skin is the second collaboration between George Benjamin and Martin Crimp. Their previous One Act Opera 'Into The Little Hill' has been received with universal acclaim. To date it has been staged in 13 countries, and had its Chinese premiere in Beijing in October 2012. Written on Skin was jointly commissioned by The Festival d Aix-en-Provence; De Nederlandse Opera (Amsterdam); Theatre du Capitole (Toulouse); Royal Opera House Covent Garden; Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and is published by Faber Music Ltd. This recording was largely produced from a broadcast recording by Radio France in July 2012 at the Festival d Aix-en-Provence. Duet for Piano and Orchestra George Benjamin's work, Duet for Piano and Orchestra, was performed by its dedicatee, Pierre Laurent-Aimard, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer.
George Benjamins score is more impassioned, more sensuously beautiful and, at times, more fiercely dramatic than anything he has written before. The intertwining of the voices often with just the sparest accompaniment, is spellbinding, the ability to crystallise a whole mood in a single mysterious orchestral chord or a bare, ticking percussion clock is magical. Benjamin conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and they play wonderfully for him. --Andrew Clements, The Guardian The enterprising people at Nimbus have granted 21st-Century opera lovers an extraordinary opportunity to become acquainted with one of the finest operas of the new millennium. Written on Skin is set to prove a lasting masterwork of 21st-Century opera. A more committed cast than the one assembled for the Aix-en-Provence première cannot be imagined, and the efforts of all involved combine to produce a recording of genuinely great artistic merit. Joseph Newsome Vox-des-arts.blogspot.co.uk May 2013 The dark spirit of the drama is impressively sustained throughout the recording, with the five singers giving their all and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra relishing he musics startlingly distinctive range of colours and textures.This is music of formidable self-assurance, performed and recorded with matching conviction. --Arnold Whittall, Gramophone, May 2013 Written on Skin is strident, tender, lyrical, quietly rhetorical, very human, humane, gripping, beautiful of sound, delicate and potentially quiescent, unflinching, and alarmingly sinewy. The singing styles, the orchestral textures and colours, the pace, the dramatic focus, all vary in exact concord with the story and its important (underlying) ideas and ideals. Benjamin truly shows himself an expert at this, binding himself to a contemporary idiom which is both approachable and upliftingly unique. If any combination of contemporary British music, opera and/or George Benjamin's admirable output is of even minimal interest to you, then this is a release that you will not want to miss. The music is beautiful and central in style and theme to the worlds to which it makes such a valuable contribution. Unsurprisingly the performances are clear, clean and persuasive. After you've been suitably heartened that contemporary music, and contemporary opera at that, can be conceived, performed and received as well as this, you'll also be left with a work of immense value in its own right. --Mark Sealey, Musicweb-International.com, May 2013
The dark spirit of the drama is impressively sustained throughout the recording, with the five singers giving their all and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra relishing he musics startlingly distinctive range of colours and textures. This is music of formidable self-assurance, performed and recorded with matching conviction. --Arnold Whittall, Gramophone, May 2013
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Others have outlined the plot and the work's Brechtian, "distanced" narrative technique, which is more reminiscent of a Britten Church Parable or Bach Passion than a conventional opera. So far, so fair. But the text itself is problematic. Martin Crimp's precious poetry manages to be patrician, smug and careless at the same time. Patrician and smug, in its constant preaching to the converted regarding modern life and consumerism, with its distasteful "Saturday markets", "car parks" and people collecting "air miles" (=bad) - i.e. all the things the vulgar get up to, as opposed to the exquisite art (=good) and socially progressive ideals espoused by the educated few. Again, where The Protector (dictator=bad) is asked by The Woman (female=good) about the black smoke on the horizon, he replies that a village is being burnt "to protect the family". This is not the empathic, ambiguous narrative necessary to true drama, which challenges by confronting us with perspectives of The Other. It is plain vanilla, sociological tract.
As to its carelessness, the moral detachment of The Boy (artist=good) - in reality an intellectual Angel engaged in amusing himself by observing the "disaster" which is humanity - means that we can feel nothing but blank indifference when he is murdered and baked into a pie. Like The Protector and The Woman, The Boy is simply a robot constructed to act out an inert, preconceived thesis. This carelessness extends from theme to detail: when The Woman is introduced early in Part 1, the point is made that she is childless (=the impotence of the Ruling Class, get it?) Yet when in Part 3 she knowingly tucks into that fatal pie, she tells us she will remember its taste, "sweet as my own milk" - a cheap shot introduced to engender sympathy for her cruelly frustrated womanhood. Now, childless women do not make milk. The line is simply shoved in for effect, without thought of dramatic consistency. Such cheating emphasises that these characters are lifeless puppets, with a self-satisfied poet to pull their strings.
Sad to say, George Benjamin's music does little to counteract the air of false contrivance promoted by the libretto. It's significant, I think, that its most-praised feature has not been Benjamin's dramatic thrust, let alone any symphonic cogency in his music, but his piquant and detailed orchestration. And it is undeniably pleasant to hear him amusing himself (and tickling our jaded palates) with such novel effects as a viol de gamba mixing it with a glass harmonica and bongos. But the glacially slow pace of his 90-minute score lacks momentum. With the exception of a scurrying, murderous woodland chase in Part 3 it evokes no atmospheres to draw us in to the opera's physical world(s). Fatally, it lacks the vital charge to characterise or promote interest in the librettist's human puppets - let alone his ambiguous superior beings, the three Angels.
The performers here do their best to inject felt life into the operatic corpse, without success. If composer and librettist between them can't engage us even in the culminatory, culinary treat of the human pie (the eating of which evoked glum indifference rather than Grecian horror and pity in this listener at least) then I suggest that have failed in their task. The final feeling is, that we've sat through something like a cross between a Noh drama and a Margaret Attwood novel, without the weighty tradition of the former, or the serious integrity of the latter.
"Finest opera of the century"? Poor us, if that were true! Fortunately, the presence on the scene of more robust and innovatory lyric theatre talents, from Nyman and Glass through to Andriessen and Judith Weir, should encourage George Benjamin to return to his comfort zone - the composer's excellence as a purveyor of engaging, orchestral sweetmeats is not in doubt, and well-demonstrated by the filler here ('Duet' for Piano and Orchestra, neatly put across by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.) Two stars for that, none for a disappointingly modish, empty and conventional opera.
"Written on Skin" is a genuinely gripping work, based on an anonymous 13th century story called "Le coeur mangé" - The Eaten Heart. A Boy is commissioned to create a book in the household of a rich man - the Protector. The man's wife Agnès becomes infatuated with the boy, ending in the boy's murder by her husband - who then forces her to eat the boy's heart. He tries to kill her, but she foils him by leaping from the window to her death (shades of Tosca?!).
So many things to appreciate and praise; the orchestra is the wonderful Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who deliver Benjamin's rich but never over-heavy score with utter confidence, revelling in the intense colours. There are many memorable instrumental contributions - the high wailing bassoon solo in Scene 10, or the spine-chilling chords when the husband confronts the boy in the wood, causing him to tell a 'white lie' - a pivotal moment.
The singers are all outstanding; the wife, whose soprano part is often cruelly high-lying, is sung by Barbara Hannigan, a rising - or risen! - star if ever there was one. She captures the sensuous abandon of Agnès' music brilliantly. Christopher Purves is menacing as her husband, the so-called Protector, and Bejun Mehta, the counter-tenor, finds the precise mixture of purity and seduction as the Boy. The story unfolds at the behest of three 'Angels' - Mehta is one of these, and the other two are Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton, who also feature in the story as Marie, Agnès' sister, and her husband John. A small but superb cast. There is nothing superfluous or extravagent about Benjamin's concept; but this is a full-blooded opera,shocking in its stomach-churning conclusion. Can't wait to see it on the stage, just hope I can get a ticket!
Nimbus are to be congratulated on this important new release. There is a complete libretto included in the box, as well as a fascinating and revealing 'interview' with the composer. An added bonus is Benjamin's fine Duet for Piano and Orchestra of 2008.
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