Stillness and energy crying out for dance
By Matthew Rye
From the Telegraph - 25/07/2006
George Benjamin's fastidious approach to his craft and resulting slow rate of composition mean that premieres of new works from his pen aren't exactly two a penny.
Dance Figures is his first large-scale work since Palimpsests of 2002 and received its first UK performance at last night's Prom a little over a year after its world premiere in Chicago. It was conceived as music for ballet to a commission from Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker for the Rosas Dance Company and had its stage premiere in Brussels in the spring.
But as with all the best dance scores it proves to be just as at home in the concert hall.
Although playing continuously for a little over a quarter of an hour, the work is made up of nine contrasting character pieces, or "choreographic scenes" and it is their juxtaposition that effectively creates the work's inner drama.
For, while calling for large forces - here the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its new principal guest conductor David Robertson - Benjamin frequently pares them down to chamber-sized proportions for moments of stillness and reflection. But there's energy, too - especially in the vivid sense of rhythmical play in the sixth and ninth scenes - that cries out for dance.
Something of Benjamin's refinement and musical wit were reflected in Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony, the work that had preceded Dance Figures in the concert. Here, in a performance as stylish as it was rhythmically alive, Robertson showed that Haydn still has a place in the repertoire of traditional symphony orchestras.
There was even a Benjamin link with the other work on the programme. Dance Figures is allied to a recent keyboard work, Piano Figures, written for the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. And it was Aimard who took the solo role in Brahms's First Piano Concerto.
This was a performance that not only brought out the deep tragedy in the sentiment of the first movement but also tapped the music's more inward vein - Aimard's soft, beautifully-shaped playing in the Benedictus-like slow movement was particularly affecting.
For his part, Robertson brought out much of the inner workings in Brahms's orchestral accompaniment to good effect.
By Tom Service
From the Guardian - Wednesday July 26, 2006
It's taken two years for George Benjamin's new piece to receive its first performance in this country, but it was worth the wait. Dance Figures, written as a ballet in "nine choreographic scenes", was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in their Prom conducted by David Robertson, and it was a highlight of the Proms season so far.
Each of Benjamin's orchestral works - the last, Palimpsest II, was first heard in 2002 - is a miraculously crafted masterpiece, often the result of years of planning and sketching. But Dance Figures has a directness and at times a simplicity that is new in his catalogue. In writing a piece for dancers, Benjamin has thinned out the dense layerings and intricate polyphony that often characterises his music. The result, in the nine interlinked sections of Dance Figures, is a distillation of his style and an enhancement of its poetry.
The first six sections play together and create a single arc of gradually increasing speed and tension. The last three sections telescope and amplify this journey, ending in some of the most exciting and immediate music Benjamin has ever written. Robertson and the BBCSO gave a performance of real authority and conviction and, even in the vast spaces of the Albert Hall, Dance Figures was a hugely impressive Proms premiere.
Dance Figures was partnered by Haydn's Surprise Symphony in the first half, in an incisive performance from the BBC players. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the soloist in Brahms's First Piano Concerto, and for all the power of the outer movements, it was the serenity of the slow movement that was most memorable, as Aimard found a whole world of limpid colours in Brahms's piano-writing.
By Paul Conway
From the Independent - 26 July 2006
In the Prom given by the BBC SO under David Robertson, which featured a curiously hard-driven Haydn "Surprise" Symphony and the sensitive artistry of Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist in Brahms' First Piano Concerto, it was the centrepiece of the concert, the UK premiere of George Benjamin's "Dance Figures", which found conductor and orchestra in their element, responding with great imagination to realising Benjamin's rich textures, enticing harmonies and audacious rhythms.
Comprising nine satisfyingly contrasting choreographic scenes, with the spirits of Stravinsky, Ravel and Webern recalled at various stages, this richly colourful piece is Benjamin's first work conceived for dance, though it works just as well as a Concerto for Orchestra, refreshing and invigorating the repertoire without arid experimentation or striving for effect.