George Benjamin at Aldeburgh

George Benjamin Portrait/Into the Little Hill
Snape Maltings/Britten Studio, Aldeburgh

George Benjamin turned 50 earlier this year. A birthday concert with the Sinfonietta in February offered a wide-ranging retrospective. By contrast, the "composer portrait" event at this year's Aldeburgh festival, where Benjamin is the featured composer, offered performances of only two of his works: Shadowlines and Upon Silence. Yet both resonated all the more strongly for being presented against a backdrop of 20th-century works chosen by the composer and presented with short interviews led by the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of the festival since last year and an old friend of the composer.

Aimard was the soloist in the first half, moving from the restless harmonic experimentation of Scriabin's Op 74 Preludes to the numinous sonorities, flecked with tragedy, of Messiaen's Cloches d'Angoisse, via Webern's crisp Op 27 Variations. Like the Webern, Benjamin's Shadowlines is a densely contrapuntal work, but one in which entire soundworlds are set against one other as much as individual lines.

Susan Bickley sang Benjamin's setting of WB Yeats's Long-legged Fly at its premiere. Twenty years later, she reminded us why Upon Silence remains one of the composer's most profound offerings. Like the slender opera Into the Little Hill, which transferred fluently for two performances on the Maltings stage in John Fulljames's production, it draws on Benjamin's peerless ability to create tight structure from a haze of colour, harmony from complex, intractable-seeming material, and bright innovation from painstaking craftsmanship. Both works take music and its powers, often abused, for their main subject. It is a subject that Benjamin's contributions of the last three decades or so have further deepened and ennobled.

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