A double bill of George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern in London this week. For the second night of their visit they swapped the intimacy of Wigmore Hall for the larger expanse of the Roundhouse in Camden.

George Benjamin and Ensemble Modern in rehearsal at the Roundhouse © Wigmore Hall
George Benjamin and Ensemble Modern in rehearsal at the Roundhouse
© Wigmore Hall

Pierre Boulez's Initiale for seven brass was the opening fanfare. It's a work full of imitations and echoes, musical material scattering itself across the ensemble and reforming. The pairs of horns, trumpets, and trombones were arranged in mirror-image around the central tuba, giving some sense of the work's contrapuntal interplay and focusing the sound so it was white hot when it hit the audience. I couldn't help but feel they'd missed a trick though, as the circular design of the hall with its first-floor balcony offers much potential for channelling the work's antiphonal energy. Despite some slackness of articulation aside it was lively enough.

Messiaen’s music often expresses his keen curiosity about traditions of world music, and his Sept Haïkaï for piano and ensemble is no exception. Cast in seven movements, Messiaen evokes Japanese bird calls and the hieratic sound world of the 7th-century Gagaku ensemble. The opening felt rather wayward: Messiaen's tableau-like panels must be distinct, yet still hover in the same orbit. Things converged in the second movement and the third (“Yamanka-cadenza”) was bright and vivid, almost severe, in attack and dynamics. Ueli Wiget's soliloquies were both capriciously light and darkly passionate, carrying us through Messiaen's extraordinary harmonic clusters with an unerring sense of momentum. The centre of the work, movement four (“Gagaku”) shone with high strings, trumpets, and winds; the sixth movement showcased more sparkling figuration from Wiget alongside poised and piquant winds, more sheer and intense than in versions of Messiaen that render lushness or warmth.

Galina Utvolskaya wrote music of intense austerity and stringent geometry. Her Composition no. 2 (Dies Irae) is scored for eight double basses, piano and a huge rectangular wooden box, struck throughout with a pair of large mallets. It has an imposing architectural and spatial presence: the sharp, stark lines of the vertical basses and their black necks are bisected by the coffin-like box and acute angles of the Steinway piano. It looks like one of those terrifying Richard Serra sculptures that would crush you if they fell on you; it sounds like Mark Rothko.

The piece is a set of variations, drawn from the liturgical motif of the title, but such a description doesn't do justice to its monochromatic tempo and harmony, which grinds out its body-blows without relenting, punctuated by abyssal silences. It is music that makes the audience flinch. The piece's grinding, Beckettian repetitions annihilate your sense of time, and moots the terrifying possibility that it may go on forever. It is a form of musical hell. Some people spot an underlying human resilience in this grim music’s softer moments of respite. But the ferocity of the Ensemble Modern's playing meant that any lyrical warmth was only like the residual heat of a dying star.

From that gut-punch we moved, after the interval, to Ligeti's light-headedness in his Ramifications for 12 solo strings. The two groups of strings, tuned slightly apart, spin delicate threads of melodic ostinatos, their parts separated by microtones, floating upwards until settling before breaking away again. It's a short work but, typical of Ligeti, esoteric in its references: shimmering, translucent Debussy one moment, and Bartók's lyrical breakout in another. For it to work the piece must go beyond mere soundscape: even the tiniest ostinato needs melodic shape and a delicate appreciation of line, as well as drum-tight ensemble: it lacked for integration and focus at the outset, sometimes wafting not gleaming. But there were moments where Benjamin pulled things together: moments of exquisite crystalline transparency, where the music suddenly turned convex or concave.

Finally, Benjamin’s Palimpsests (2002), a piece premiered by the Ensemble Modern itself, which surely explains their intense connection with this music. The title evokes a text that has been overwritten, again and again, creating a labyrinthine play of surface and depth, clarity and density. For a large ensemble in which brass, winds, and percussionists outnumber a spare but spiky string section, it represents Benjamin at his most texturally inventive and contrapuntally canny. Ensemble Modern played with extraordinary perspicacity and sense of ensemble, passing timbres from one part to the other with seamless ingenuity and style: an apt demonstration of Benjamin's acute understanding of Webern and Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie. For all the textural dazzle, though, Palimpsests has a cleanness of line and transparency in its part-writing that is intuitive and engaging, sharpened with ingenious combinations of individual winds, strings, percussion, and brass; everything is carefully wrought but never contrived, blending the argumentative logic of Bach with the colouristic brilliance of Stravinsky's Firebird. Precise, bright, and utterly thrilling.

****1