Benjamin: Written on Skin

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: George Benjamin
LABELS: Nimbus
ALBUM TITLE: Benjamin: Written on Skin
WORKS: Written on Skin; Duet for piano and orchestra
PERFORMER: Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/George Benjamin
CATALOGUE NO: NI58856

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There was a time when George Benjamin’s music seemed so exquisitely pure and self-contained it was impossible to imagine it could ever embrace the taint of human drama. His new full-length opera Written on Skin has proved us all wrong. It shows his imagination for sonorities and subtle harmonic shadings is as keen as ever, but what’s new is the amplitude of feeling. There’s an erotic ache in those harmonies, which at times nudge towards late Wagner, mingled with a sense of foreboding.

This recording captures it all magnificently. Christopher Purves as the medieval Lord or ‘Protector’, whose complacent belief that he controls his wife is soon proved wrong, expresses a brooding pride and menace that makes your skin crawl. Barbara Hannigan, as the wife, makes an electrifying transformation from doe-like submissiveness to sexual predator, and the powerfully strange –
countertenor of Bejun Mehta – who plays the artist commissioned by the Protector to immortalise his earthly power in an illuminated book – is ideally contrasted to these two. The gathering erotic charge between artist and wife is portrayed with mesmerising power.

Even more riveting than the singing is the playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is shot through with mysterious and sinister sounds of bass viol, glass harmonica and brass instruments played with a practice mute. The awkward high-string figuration is precisely etched, and George Benjamin paces the music in a way that makes it seem luxuriant and expansive, yet with an almost imperceptible tremor of tension.  On every level it’s masterly.

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Ivan Hewett