Review: Prelude and String Quartet No. 2

“Clearly articulated themes ... an appealingly approachable piece of contemporary music”

The Cherwell on 18th May 2006, by Nicholas Ireson
Berenika / Holywell Quartet / Emily Eisen at Holywell Music Room, Oxford, May 2006

One of the problems with reviewing new music is that the critic’s work is almost doubled, having to judge not only the quality of the performance but also the aesthetic qualities of the music itself. In the Holywell Music Room on Friday night, this job was considerably eased by the high quality of all the performances.

Tim Benjamin’s Prelude for solo piano was performed by the pianist Berenika, who also commissioned the work. The prelude depicts the different temperaments of three travellers who meet on the road to a common destination. The part was negotiated confidently by Berenika despite the fiendishly difficult music, the clearly articulated themes of the different characters being a particular highlight in what was an appealingly approachable piece of contemporary music.

Benjamin’s String Quartet No. 2 was a lengthier and less accessible work given by the ubiquitous Holywell quartet, containing a specific political programme inspired by repressive legislation introduced by the UK and US after terrorist attacks, supposedly to ensure the safety of their citizens. By the composer’s own admission the programme is difficult to detect from the music alone, however I found that this did not distract from the work; heard as absolute music the quartet was still coherent.

The work was in two parts, the strings being joined in the second part by soprano Emily Eisen. The quartet opened with a slow chorale, melancholic and mournful, (perhaps the composers requiem for his civil liberties?) before fragmenting into antiphonal pizzicato and spiccato, the different lines flying around the quartet with no hint at the difficulty of the passage portrayed by the performers. The second section of the substantial quartet saw the soprano singing the Latin text of John Locke’s epitaph. Much contemporary music seems to revel in treacherously high vocal parts but Eisen navigated the part well, the slight fragility of her voice suiting the atmosphere of the piece.

All in all an enjoyable concert; contemporary music is overlooked in Oxford so this was a refreshing change, and a welcome introduction to Benjamin’s music.


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