‘Palimpsest’ is a useful term for the kind of contemporary composition that superimposes disparate layers of material and explores their interaction. George Benjamin might not be the first to use the word as a title, but the two parts of his composition, first heard in 2000 and 2002 respectively, suggest a special skill in conjuring a stark drama from the spatial and linear elements involved. It’s as if some mythic background is struggling to survive, to resist decay, against the unpredictable surges of more active material. Basic continuity is constantly under threat, and the unusual layout, with multiple woodwind and brass weighing heavily against a much more modest string choir (no cellos) underlines the unstable but characterful dialectic.
The technical and poetic preoccupations of Palimpsests can be traced back to the two earlier compositions included on the disc. At first light (1982) charts an imaginative, intricate response to the blurred outlines and incandescent colours of Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise, by way of rooted yet never entirely stable harmonic elements. Sudden Time (1993) turns a comparable dialogue between stillness and propulsion into an even richer and more radical exploration of musical wave forms, hinting at the basic paradox inherent in human – mortal – notions of the eternal. This might sound pretentious, but Benjamin has the rare musical knack of making such elevated speculations seem not only possible but necessary, and he has matured as a conductor to the point where his performances of his own works have a unique authority.
Both At first light and Sudden Time have been issued by Nimbus before, played by the London Sinfonietta (6/00) and the LPO (4/97) respectively, but these Ensemble Modern performances are first-rate replacements, in no less first-rate recordings. The new disc has the bonus of Benjamin’s brief, touchingly understated 50th birthday present for Oliver Knussen: Olicantus (2002) can also be heard on an own-label London Sinfonietta disc, conducted by Benjamin, but its presence here hints at connections with other, less gentle Benjamin works.