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George Benjamin: Shadowlines, Etc / Aimard, Et Al


Release Date: 09/07/2004 
Label:  Nimbus   Catalog #: 5713   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  George Benjamin
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent AimardAntoine TamestitTabea ZimmermannGeorge Benjamin
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Features four of Benjamin’s most exciting and enticing piano and solo string compositions. Not to be missed.

Here is a prize of a CD. It contains three works for piano and one for two violas by George Benjamin, who is 50 this year (2010). Benjamin is usually thought of as a symphonist; so it's refreshing to hear his music on a smaller scale. Although Shadowlines and Viola, Viola are also available elsewhere - on a DVD featuring Aimard, Euroarts 2055798; and on Bis 1379/80 celebrating the Viola Space festival in Japan respectively - this CD is really the place to find really good examples of this intriguing corner of Benjamin's work played in exemplary fashion.
 
It's also
Read more a CD with a history - in that the recordings it presents fall either side of the crisis which Nimbus experienced, and from which it's now thankfully recovered. It's a testament to the expertise and determination of the company's production team that the recording qualities should not only be as high as they are, but also be as consistent … the Piano Sonata is an analogue recording.
 
In fact, the four pieces play in the reverse order of their composition. Benjamin describes the influences behind Shadowlines (the most recent) as being his exposure to Webern, specifically his Symphony Op. 21. Shadowlines is indeed a spare piece; yet it's rich in sonorities and tonal palette. Dedicated to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, this is its première recording. For distillation and purpose, beauty and sensitivity, this is a rendering which could hardly be bettered.
 
Viola, Viola is the shortest piece on the CD, at a little over ten minutes. It has an interesting premise which is very well realised by Zimmermann and Tamestit: that the viola is of a 'retiring' temperament, and usually plays 'second fiddle' to stringed instruments with larger personalities. Benjamin employs a variety of techniques from counterpoint to what almost amounts to brute force - at the opening of the piece, especially - to convince the listener that they are experiencing an entire string ensemble. Repeated and careful listening to these two soloists wholly in tune not only with the instrument's possibilities, but also with Benjamin's superb understanding of string sound in this context reveals more, though: melodic development, the way that duos really work when sharing and contrasting material, and how vigour that's 'agnostic' of any instrument's characteristics nevertheless can only be experienced through and thanks to that very instrument.
 
Three studies for solo piano were actually composed over three years, between 1982 and 1985. They represent the kind of challenge that is so typical of Benjamin. After the success of such now iconic orchestral pieces as his Ringed by the Flat Horizon, the young composer wanted to impose his own constraints and meet the resulting challenge - musically, not in terms of form. In the Three Studies, as in the even earlier Piano Sonata, which ends the CD and is its longest work at a minute or two more than the originally separate Three Studies, it's Benjamin himself who plays. In both cases, we hear a truly remarkable interpreter in his own right. He would obviously understand the works' challenges, why they exist and how, and to what extent, they are met. But beyond that he can communicate them with no overstatement or indulgence. Indeed, with a fair degree of detachment.
 
The music is spare here too. It's not 'minimal' in the technical sense of the word. But highly economical in the tension which each piece sets up between form and emotion. Yet we need know nothing of the theory or historical context against which the Sonata and Three Studies were conceived to enjoy the focus, the intensity yet also intervening humour which characterise them.
 
This is a highly satisfying CD. It may come as a revelation to those less familiar with Benjamin's small scale instrumental music. For those put off by the 'meteoric' élan which has sometimes tended to obscure the substance of Benjamin, the music on this CD is a useful and very enjoyable corrective. Focused, intense yet highly successful given the self-imposed curbs and checks which Benjamin used, it's music to return to again and again.
 
The recording quality - as has been said - is high. There's almost a sense of a live concert, particularly in the case of the Sonata and Three Studies. The booklet is highly informative, concise and packed with relevant fore- and background on compositions, composer and players. A tribute to the Nimbus label in every respect!
 
Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International

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It was truly heartening to see Nimbus rise from the brink of ashes, and this CD bridges the old era and the new at the magnificent Wyastone Leys, deep in the leafy Monmouthshire countryside: one of the great locations for capturing classical music on the wing. The sonata is analog, from 1980, while the Three Studies were taped six years later. They both feature the composer’s audacious and exciting piano-playing. Aimard’s dedicated (to him) premiere account of Shadowlines, like the extended viola duo, is from 2003. The consistency and realism of the recordings is a tribute to the Nimbus approach. Real Steinways sound this way, in good rooms.

The four works are presented in reverse order of composition, so Benjamin’s progress seems backwards, as it were. The 20-minute sonata is a quarter of a century old, written the year Margaret Thatcher took charge of the then-teenaged composer’s home country. It features big-scale virtuoso runs in the treble, à la Messiaen (Benjamin’s teacher), tempered by a more tonal pull, and a phantasmagorical refraction of the Debussy Préludes and Études. Thrilling stuff which stands up well, but the Three Studies from 1982–85 are gentler and more subtle, this time closer to a supercharged Ravel Miroirs, especially in the big opening “Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm” and the quiet, sensual obsessions of “Meditation on Haydn’s Name.” The “Relativity Rag” closes out the set with Debussyish ragtime, made to limp, dance on one leg, then vanish. Benjamin works like a conjuror here, but he also prefigures the Baltic and post-Soviet Russian schools, yet with an unmistakable French accent. Even the Webern studies that preceded the “six canonic preludes” making up 2001’s Shadowlines are subsumed into the Impressionistic bouillabaisse, though Schoenberg’s op. 11 is close by. Benjamin had actually been looking at the first movement of Webern’s symphony, one of my favorite stretches of music by anyone, filled with light, and movement. Shadowlines doesn’t sound like Webern, and there is a portrayal of loss and aging in the expressive register of the music that is most affecting in the context of his other, youthful work, recorded here. More of Proust, or Baudelaire’s Spleen, than musical associations in Shadowlines.

Viola, viola is 10 minutes of terrific, intense, memorably overlapping dialogue from 1997. Here, with strings, a hint of English light (Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia, actually) does break through for a moment. The scintillating playing and the opulent Nimbus acoustic help give the music-making a live feel. This is probably the most immediately attractive item on the disc, a real scorcher. Benjamin used to attract criticism for being too much the clever Wunderkind and hence superficial (we Brits don’t like clever people very much, especially if they go to France), but all this music is vital, sensuous, instantly enjoyable, and thought-provoking—profound, even, with hindsight, though he’s still only in his early forties, with the best, likely as not, yet to come. Recommended, especially to devotees of French keyboard élan, and for Viola, viola.
Paul Ingram, FANFARE Read less

Works on This Recording

1.
Shadowlines by George Benjamin
Performer:  Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2001; England 
2.
Viola, Viola by George Benjamin
Performer:  Antoine Tamestit (Viola), Tabea Zimmermann (Viola)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1997; England 
3.
Sonata for Piano by George Benjamin
Performer:  George Benjamin (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1979; England 
4.
Studies (3) for Piano by George Benjamin
Performer:  George Benjamin (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1979; England 

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