Into the Little Hill
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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Into the Little Hill

Mostly Mozart Festival

AS A PENDANT TO ITS PRESENTATION of the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s full-scale opera Written on Skin, the Mostly Mozart Festival offered Benjamin’s earlier chamber opera Into the Little Hill at a Tully Hall concert (seen Aug. 16). Benjamin conducted the fabulous International Contemporary Ensemble, and the soloists were Hila Plitmann and Susan Bickley. Into the Little Hill is not a new work (it dates from 2006) and it had been heard in New York before, but after the magnificent performance of Written on Skin one listed “backward” to it and hear it with fresh ears.

Into the Little Hill was almost a trial opera from Benjamin; it last only forty minutes, it doesn’t require staging, and the two singers play all the roles. But Benjamin found his approach to the natural setting of English words here, even if he sometimes obscures it with overlapping voices, and in this retelling of the Pied Piper story he also developed a sense for the articulation of drama through instrumental timbre. In narrative passages, a duo of basset horns proves remarkably versatile (and inadvertently made a sly nod to the Mostly Mozart banner). There are also pairs of violins, violas, cellos and trumpets, the latter with a salesman’s suitcase of various mutes contributing endlessly to the wide sonic palette. A bass flute, sometimes echoing the vocal line in canon, is an apt sonority for moments when Martin Crimp’s text seeks ambiguity. The turning point of the drama, when the piper realizes that he has been cheated and takes matters into his own hands, is pitched with only the lowest instruments, Bickley’s chest register here combined with double bass and contrabass clarinet.

Bickley’s voice has a solid core, and she was an astute partner in Benjamin’s careful setting of the words. (Crimp, as he does in Written on Skin, likes to drop modern references into an essentially timeless tale.) Plitmann’s voice showed signs of heavy use in extreme repertoire, sometimes emerging with a whistling quality, not only in altissimo. Her intonation, generally good, tended to go astray in soft singing. But there was a soloist for the ages in the first half of the program. Had there ever been any doubt that Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the person we most want on the piano bench for Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques, the fact that he played the kaleidoscopic work from memory would have allayed it. Perhaps it is still sacrilege to prefer any pianist to Messiaen’s muse Yvonne Loriod in this repertoire, but Aimard’s attention to color, dynamics and the contribution of each note of a running passage makes to the whole put Loriod’s interpretation in the shade. Aimard, Benjamin and the tireless players also offered Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. In this piece too, with its extremes of tone color and range again tuning up the ear for Benjamin’s own music, Aimard still reigns supreme. —William R. Braun 

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