Ensemble Modern/Benjamin review – exhilarating, terrifying new music

George Benjamin’s pair of concerts with Ensemble Modern, presented under the auspices of the Wigmore Hall, were split between the hall itself and the Roundhouse. Both featured Benjamin’s own music. In the first, there were also works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason and Luigi Dallapiccola, while at the Roundhouse, the ensemble took on orchestral proportions for Boulez, Messiaen, Ustvolskaya and Ligeti.

Both were reminders of how exhilarating Ensemble Modern’s performances can be, and how this Frankfurt-based group remains peerless among today’s new-music specialists. As an oboist, Milliken was one of its founder members, and in Bright Ring, receiving its UK premiere, she exploits the peculiar intensity it brings to every performance in slowly evolving sound masses, punctuated by glittering, gleaming outbursts and equally abrupt collapses into nothingness. The trajectory of Mason’s four-year-old piece, Layers of Love, was less clear – how it reaches its final explosion of dance rhythms wasn’t obvious – though the slippery microtones at the opening are certainly striking.

George Benjamin at work. Photograph: Matt Lloyd

Unexpectedly, the Boulez piece in the Roundhouse concert was a bit of a novelty, too – a five-minute fanfare, Initiale, from 1987 that sometimes sounds more like Malcolm Arnold than anything by one of the 20th century’s greatest iconoclasts. The Roundhouse isn’t the best venue for music of textural complexity, and the balance in Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï, with Ueli Wiget as the solo pianist, wasn’t always convincing. There were no such problems in Ustvolskaya’s elemental Composition No 2 Dies Irae; with its pounding piano and double basses interspersed with the terrifying sounds of a coffin-shaped wooden box struck with mallets, it seems like an exercise in musical self-flagellation.

Benjamin had selected two of his own greatest achievements from the beginning of the 21st century for these programmes, The “lyric tale” Into the Little Hill, a retelling of the Pied Piper story, remains as spellbinding now as it was at its premiere in Paris in 2006, perhaps sounding edgier and more painfully urgent than ever up close at the Wigmore. Ensemble Modern gave that premiere and so did the soprano Anu Komsi, who was joined this time by impressive contralto Helena Rasker, to convey this story with all its contemporary resonances, while the overwhelming orchestral Palimpsests, composed just four years earlier, reveals how Benjamin armed himself expressively for that first foray into music theatre.

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