ALBUM TITLE: Benjamin
WORKS: Into the Little Hill*; Flight; Dream of the Song
PERFORMER: Hila Plitmann (soprano), Susan Bickley (contralto), Bejun Mehta (countertenor), Michael Cox (flute); Netherlands Chamber Choir; *London Sinfonietta; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/George Benjamin
CATALOGUE NO: NI 5964
Be ready. The opening of George Benjamin’s 40-minute opera Into the Little Hill gives quite a jolt when heard live, and the effect is magnified in the purely auditory realm of CD. If anything, this second recording of Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp’s exceptionally concise reimagining of the pied piper story, with two singers conveying all the roles and the story’s narration, is even tauter and a shade harder edged than the first (also on Nimbus). While that featured the singers from the original production, the new version boasts long-standing Benjamin advocate Susan Bickley alongside the highly versatile soprano Hila Plitmann with the composer at the helm. The result is first rate, conveying the power of this ancient tale that holds up an unforgiving mirror to contemporary society.
The opera performance is reason enough to buy this disc, but it is equally welcome for the recording of Benjamin’s stunning recent song-cycle Dream of the Song (a recording also available on the Royal Concertgebouw’s own label). Written for Bejun Mehta, the countertenor who so impressed in Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, this alluring, yet unsettling work surrounds his voice with a female chorus and an orchestra deployed with the composer’s customary precision. With texts exploring aspects of mortality and time passing, the settings range from the Mehta’s breathtaking stillness against quiet choral murmerings in ‘Gazing through the night’ to the searing exhortations for the choir alone of ‘Gacela del amor maravilloso’.
With a fine performance from Michael Cox of the early solo flute piece Flight, serving effectively as a bridge between the opera and song-cycle, this latest addition by Nimbus to the Benjamin discography is altogether essential listening.