By Andrew Clements in The Guardian
Whether by design or good fortune, the Wigmore Hall’s short George Benjamin series overlaps neatly with the first UK performances of his opera Written on Skin at Covent Garden. Next month, the Wigmore hosts a performance of his first music-theatre piece, Into the Little Hill, but the first concert of the season focused on much slighter pieces, juxtaposing them with music by one of Benjamin’s teachers, Alexander Goehr.
The common denominators between them here were works for viola and songs involving a consort of viols. Goehr’s viola and piano Sur Terre, en l’Air, was a 1997 offshoot of his viola piece Schlussgesang, a beautifully shaped, introspective sequence of movements suited perfectly to the very special qualities of violist Tabea Zimmermann, who revived it here, with Benjamin as pianist. Partnered by her former pupil Antoine Tamestit, the peerless Zimmermann also gave a remarkable performance of Benjamin’s Viola, Viola – now over 15 years old but still a dazzling demonstration of compositional craft and sheer inventiveness for what he extracts from the two strings.
Upon Silence, Benjamin’s setting of WB Yeats, reunited the performers who gave the song its first performance in 1990: the mezzo Susan Bickley and the viol consort Fretwork. The accompaniments are a beguiling reimagining of the consort sound, at one moment glassy and glacially still, hyperactive and unpredictable at the next, while the voice implacably delivers the text above it.
Bickley was typically understated and eloquent, and she was equally direct in Goehr’s From Shadow of Night, a setting of George Chapman, and his Three Sonnets and Two Fantasias. This folds two poems by Shakespeare and one by Robert Frost into a shapely sequence that’s couched in a music language whose modal reinventions seem for once, in the soundworlds of the viols, entirely idiomatic.