American composer Benjamin Broening (b. 1967) drew inspiration for the eight haunting pieces on this disc from the natural world in Estonia. The combinations of acoustical instruments and electronics are so deftly achieved that textures come and go with surprising enchantment and tension. The disc’s title comes from the virtuosic flute solo that evokes a conflicted environment. Eighth blackbird, the chamber ensemble founded at Oberlin College, play Broening’s collection to the expressive skies.
Ida Haendel’s sinewy and athletic reading of the often under-rated Britten combines toughness with a cumulative dramatic impetus which is hard to resist. Berglund and the Bournemouth players respond with a terse and argumentative vigour, suitably balanced between resignation and defiant rhetoric, especially in the closing Passacaglia. The Walton Concerto, also dating from 1938-9, is played with an apposite blend of inscrutable panache, as in the irrepressibly brilliant central movement, and elsewhere, a sensuous, if occasionally over-indulgent languor. Rare lapses in the finale can be safely overlooked, in a performance of eloquence and undisputed stature.
When Written on Skin had its premiere at the 2012 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, conducted by George Benjamin himself, it received a standing ovation. The opera's arrival at Covent Garden in 2013 was eagerly anticipated, and provided audiences with the opportunity to experience the work of two of Britain's greatest living artists. Benjamin previously collaborated with playwright Martin Crimp on Into the Little Hill, a magical retelling of the Pied Piper fairytale, and for this new work they joined forces with acclaimed stage director Katie Mitchell. For all three, the production marked their main-stage debut at the Royal Opera House. The tale, inspired by a medieval legend, tells of an ill-fated troubadour, drawn into a liaison with an innocent maiden. But they are observed by the jealous eye of her protector, who wreaks a shocking revenge on the young couple.