It’s quite something to see the name of a contemporary British composer up in lights. So hoera for Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, whose NTR Saturday Matinee season features four hedendaags offerings, this first a chance to hear again two works performed in Munich earlier this year when Sir George Benjamin was awarded the $250,000 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. 

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Sir George Benjamin conducts Ensemble Modern
© Milagro Elstak

In his notes for Saturday’s programme, Benjamin attributed the addition of Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert to 2023 being the year of the Austro-Hungarian composer’s centenary, rather than complementarity to the three works themselves. But the chance to hear them all performed together proved an opportunity to hear afresh both composers’ fascination with extremes of pitch and timbre,  and their spatial explorations of sound. 

At First Light is Benjamin’s 1982 work inspired by Turner’s 1845 painting of Norham Castle at sunrise – an astonishing work that beat the French Impressionists at their own game by a good 15 years. In the Concertgebouw’s lively acoustic the muted trumpet struck like a sharpened flint out of an harmonic veil of an early morning distinctly cooler than the one in the painting; perhaps Benjamin was thinking of the artist setting up beside the Tweed pre-dawn.

Benjamin's long-time collaborators Ensemble Modern shone with breathtaking precision, the extensive exploration of harmonics, along with brushed cymbal and vibraphone, creating the sense of exhalation in the morning air. As in Turner’s work, all paint attains the quality of light, so in Benjamin’s, all sound attains the quality of breath.

Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert likewise explores a subtle illusory realm, adding plaintive lyrical lines in cor anglais and basset horn, and Ensemble Modern – the ultimate precision machine – gave every sound a charge and brilliance of its own. The warm rapport between Benjamin and this ensemble was palpable, not least in that they share a commitment to the silence between sounds, Benjamin hanging on to several seconds of charged stillness at the end of each of the four movements.

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Sir George Benjamin, Helena Rasker and Keren Motseri
© Milagro Elstak

Even without the gnawed rubber-chip set I remember so vividly from seeing Into the Little Hill at the Linbury in 2011, the sense of menace burrowed ferociously into the afternoon plush of the Grote Zaal in a concert performance of this dark retelling of the Pied Piper story. Take it from one who knows, the opening phrase “Kill them, they bite!” is exactly the voice of your fear when you hear a rat gnawing through your bathroom pipes at 4am and it was rendered unsparingly by the cornets, trombone and basset horns of the ensemble. 

Although difficult for human voices initially to cut through in this vast, chandeliered space, the contrasts in timbre throughout the work give plenty of dramatic scope. Dutch contralto Helena Rasker’s clarity and power in the lower part of her register made her perfect for the Minister who will stop at nothing to get elected, while she was tender as the Mother who must explain the disappearance of the rats to her child. Israeli soprano Keren Motseri was all sweet-voiced innocence as the Child and eerie, other-worldly charm as the mysterious Man able – evidently – to pluck notes from high in the sky. Martin Crimp’s unsettling, timeless libretto brilliantly captures the essence of Benjamin’s enduring invention. “The world,” sings the piper, “is the shape my music makes it.”