Tim Benjamin’s Radius ensemble comprises some of Britain’s most decorated young new music performers, and since its début in 2007 the group has become known for its polished recitals of contemporary and 20th-century repertoire. For their latest Purcell Room appearance, Radius flanked a major new piece by Benjamin, Mrs Lazarus, with early works by Berg and Schoenberg, drawing together old and new incarnations of expressionism.
Mrs Lazarus is a setting of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, the story of a widow haunted by her dead husband as she seeks solace with a new lover. Benjamin is making a speciality of semi-staged music theatre works, and Mrs Lazarus — directed by Lewis Reynolds — was a particularly successful example. The staging was extremely light, with piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet placed in a square around the soprano, Danae Eleni, who had a license to move as she wished. I was especially struck by the instrumental prologue, which seemed to encage the vocalist before she had even had a chance to sing. Some of the coloristic effects recalled horror movie soundtracks, but the overall impression remained suitably spooky. At the crucial point where the poem shifts from past to present tense Benjamin’s fluid writing locked into tense, even phrases, like becoming suddenly aware of ones own breath.
Of the older pieces, the Schoenberg was well played, although I felt that its more conventionally romantic idiom took the performers off their interpretative toes, but Bergs opus 1 Piano Sonata was given a spacious and detailed reading by John Reid that brought out the full range of Berg’s harmonic distortions with breathtaking clarity.