Review: A Dream of England

“Tightly conceived ... the music was the most impressive we'd heard all night”

Musical Criticism on 22nd June 2009, by Stephen Graham
Radius at Wigmore Hall, 18th June 2009

... Radio Music proved to be hors doeuvres for the meat of the second half, the world premiere of Tim Benjamin’s tightly conceived narrative piece for actor and five musicians, A Dream Of England. Raymond Blankenhorn as the young Charles Darwin recited/performed passages of text from Darwin’s journals and collected letters dating from the naturalist’s five year journey around (primarily) Southern America on the H.M.S Beagle. The quintet of musicians (the four mentioned thus far with Watts now on bass clarinet, and an assured Adam Walker on flute) supplied commentary and contrast sometimes behind the voice, but most often between the paragraphs of text.

The performance engaged throughout; ... Blankenhorn proved charming. He was interesting and interested without ever being too forward in the characterisation. The music was the most impressive we’d heard all night. The pungent repeating figures in piano and winds gave a flinty edge to the musical annotations, whilst the performers were full of poise and purpose. Benjamin maintained a variety in the form which ensured the work kept its hold to the end: often the music slyly undercut or simply remained calmly neutral from Darwin’s blithe statements about the instrumentality of animals, or his elegantly imperial attitudes to indigenous tribes and to slavery (casual, kind but oh so self-rewardingly noble). At crucial points however Benjamin shook off this neutral approach and inserted himself into the text. To whit: the music suddenly becomes quiescent and brutal after a particular cruelty regarding a condor bird is announced, or at the end, wonderfully, when Darwin glories in British Civilisation rising up to the full glory of its destiny, and the music sardonically steams up a scale in mordant majesty. A strong end to an eclectic and often captivating concert.

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