Musica Viva 22
Search for a composer connecting George Benjamin to Tristan Murail, and look no further than Olivier Messiaen, who taught the two of them. But on this very fine recording of major works by both, taken live from the Herkulessaal in 2012 and without much bronchial interference, György Ligeti is the reference, the context of choice.
His Lontano (1967) acts as overture. Benjamin leads a superlative performance, one surprisingly visceral for a piece about distance. Little reaches the gossamer fragility in parts of Abbado’s Vienna account but the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra supply more immediacy, with a richness that they might also deploy in, say, Strauss. That’s not to say that the textures clot: flecks of melody flicker in the ear, enticing and disappearing in a moment; the balancing that makes that possible is admirable.
Benjamin’s own Palimpsests (1998-2002) come off well, too, and again the Bavarians’ playing is special. Take the opening moments of Palimpsest I, when the brass, caustic and stark, smack at winding, indeterminate clarinets, or the snarling, nasty layering at the climax of the darker Palimpsest II. This is some of Benjamin’s most forthright writing, and it benefits from the larger scale and broader palette this orchestra offers compared to the Ensemble Modern on the composer’s previous recording.
The titles of Lontano and Palimpsests point to something in the music; if the same is true of Murail’s Le désenchantement du monde (2011/12), a reference to Max Weber, it escapes me. In this ‘concerto symphonique’ for piano, Murail turns away from explicit spectralism, though the alternately placid and volcanic result still dwells on the nature and properties of sound. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is as strong an advocate as always, and Murail devotees should not hesitate, but the Ligeti and Benjamin are the thing here.