For whatever reason, I haven't caught a huge amount of the festival's celebration of composer George Benjamin, who celebrates his 50th birthday this year. However, the pair of works programmed for the Britten-Pears Orchestra concert were well chosen. It began with Aimard playing his ten Piano Figures. These were interesting, fun (the closing Whirling particularly) and more lyrical than I might have expected and Aimard played them well. A nice start, then, but they mainly served as a prelude to the Dance Figures, for full orchestra, that followed. There is not a one to one mapping of the pieces, the latter numbering just nine, with some new ones, but they provided a fascinating contrast. It was rather like looking at the outline sketch followed by the full painting; yet it was as well the piano had been there before, because it added to the apprecation. And, as with that experience, the painting was much more satisfying, not least for Benjamin's wonderful touch with orchestration. As ever, though, with music one hears for the first time, especially modern compositions, one immediately wanted to hear it again. The playing of the orchestra under Knussen was to a high standard, though a little too loud in Hammers.
Benjamin was followed by Knussen's single movement horn concerto, played by Richard Watkins, former principal horn of the Philharmonia. The programme note talks about the nachtmusik feel of Mahler's 7th symphony, and there was a strong flavour of that present. The solo part itself was highly demanding, which only makes Watkins' performance the more impressive since he didn't put a foot wrong - there was not the ghost of a cracked note. My only reservation concerns the slightly abrupt way in which the work ended, almost mid-phrase.
After the interval, the programme was entirely given over to Britten. It's interesting that, despite the well reported fact that artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard isn't a fan of Britten, 2010 has actually been a pretty good year for the composer. Indeed, there were some years under Ades when much less of his music was on offer. First up was Nocturne, following on nicely from the concerto. The soloist, Robert Murray, was clear and well characterised, especially with the tings and meows in Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting. However, even though his diction was solid, it still would have been nice to have the texts. The orchestra was perhaps a little large for the work, but Knussen mostly kept them from overwhelming him and the playing was exceptional - the quality of the string tone in some of the chords in What is more gentle than a wind in the summer? was impressive, not to mention the beautiful wind solos from Laura Pou (flute) and Caroline Inderbitzin (clarinet). The quality of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, by its very nature, is variable, but whether it was just a particularly fine intake or the presence of Oliver Knussen, a reliably good conductor, or more likely both, this was probably the best one I've heard.
They finished up with The Building of the House, generally more of an overture. In this context it formed almost a built in encore, or, as Knussen described, placed in the programme for us to properly appreciate this "singular, imaginative and just plain weird" piece. They played it with great panache and it made for a fitting end to a great evening.