Benjamin and Ravel at Aldeburgh

Benjamin: Duet for Piano and Orchestra
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, BBC SO, George Benjamin
Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival, 19 June

Written specifically for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, George Benjamin’s “Duet” for piano and orchestra received its first performance at Lucerne last year, having to wait until this year’s Aldeburgh festival for its British premiere. Here it opened the second half of a concert in which works by Elliot Carter and Julian Anderson were framed marvelously by Debussy’s Prelude a L’Apr├Ęs-Midi d’un Faune and Ravel’s D major concerto.

The “Duet” is Benjamin’s first work for piano and orchestra but, as the title suggests, it absolutely not a concerto in the traditional sense of the term. In spirit it seems almost like a kind of technical study in which elements of pianistic sonority are explored and refracted in the orchestra, the idea being that the orchestra eventually gets to sound as much like a piano as possible, and the piano as much like an orchestra. If this sounds rather dry on paper, the listening experience is awash with activity, a 14-minute, single-movement work coming across as action-filled as many a three-movement concerto.

While some of the interest does come from simply marveling at the seamless transitions from solo piano to orchestra – trumpets emerging from the texture like rattling strings, the harp sounding like the piano’s muted third pedal – and at the use of the orchestra in general, most comes the awareness of tightly knit harmonies and sonorities being rigorously explored, and from the marriage of timbre to formal function. The piece is also rhythmically electric, at times buzzing with rhythmic echoes, at others almost redolent of free jazz. Interestingly too, if the work is reminiscent of others in the piano and orchestra repertoire, it is Ravel’s concertos that come to mind, despite the almost complete absence of virtuosic showmanship.

Benjamin’s economical and precise conducting style served the BBC orchestra well not just in the contemporary works but also in the Debussy and the Ravel, both of which were taken slowly, with an emphasis on timbre and texture that both mirrored the works by Benjamin and Anderson and utilized the deep, bass-resonant acoustic of the Snape Maltings. Aimard’s command of the Ravel matched the orchestras in being pretty much note-perfect, unshowy, and yet brimming with the same mixture of innovation and deeply thoughtful musicianship that make his directorship of the Suffolk festival so welcome.

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