The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at

Barbican Radio GuestMix #9 – George Benjamin

This March, we turn our Composer Focus towards George Benjamin, one of Britain’s most admired living composers. Ahead of our weekend of events celebrating his work and musical influence, we spoke to Benjamin about the works that have influenced his career so far…

Bach, St John Passion – opening chorus

‘In this monumental edifice of sound, the texture is separated into layers – slow, sour woodwind dissonances at the top, the incessant pulse in the bass, a river of semiquavers running in between. Across this orchestral fabric flows virtuosic choral writing – which opposes stark unison cries with twisting polyphonic melismas, and all these divergent elements fuse into a harmonic frame of imposing grandeur.’

Debussy, Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un Faune

‘This score utterly entranced me at the first ever concert I attended as a young child in the Royal Festival Hall. I recall Ravel’s response on being asked why he wanted it to be played at his own funeral: ‘because it’s the only absolutely perfect score ever written’. The beauty and distilled emotion of the work never fade – Debussy can say more with the shift of a single note than most other composers in a complete work.’

Beethoven, Symphony No 7

‘I was obsessed with this work as a child, when I was intoxicated by its nobility and its almost insane rhythmic drive. Beethoven’s orchestration never ceases to astonish me – in the ingenuity with which he twists his thematic material, and the magnificent sonority he is able to draw from a relatively small orchestra.’

Robert Schumann, Fantasie in C major, opus 17

‘Another memory from my youth – I learnt this (extremely taxing) score on the piano when I was fifteen. The piece remains for me one of the very greatest achievements of early romanticism – poignant, impassioned, with a uniquely haunting harmonic palette.’

Leos Janacek, Katya Kabanova

‘This, for me, is one of the very rare perfect operas. A simple agonising tale is told with music of immense vividness, originality and sensitivity. The second scene – when Katya recalls happier times with her sister – glows with a radiant tenderness, while the final act rushes towards its tragic conclusion with irresistible urgency and dramatic force.’

Ligeti, Requiem

‘I first heard this work in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I particularly admire the Kyrie – one of the most inspired and original visions in all 20th century music. It’s by far the most frightening Requiem – and makes many other works in this genre seem trivial by comparison.’

Messiaen, Chronochromie

‘This work shows my teacher at his most bracing, energetic and daring. A 25-minute sequence of orchestral frescoes, it overflows with virtuosic birdsong, evoking the sounds and sights of nature, alongside Messiaen’s idiosyncratic (and influential) exploitation of time and rhythm. Sometimes I miss the heartfelt harmonies and ardent lyricism that typifies Messiaen’s earlier (and later) output, though this exuberant orchestral show-piece is unquestionably one of the peaks in his catalogue. I conducted it many times for Messiaen’s centenary in 2008, including this recording with the Concertgebouw, which was issued as a tribute to the composer.’

Pierre Boulez, Pli selon Pli

‘The last time I saw Pierre Boulez conduct was at a remarkable performance of this work in 2011 with Barbara Hannigan as the alluring and hypnotic soloist. This strange music inhabits a sense of space and time all of its own, while the sound-world has a transcendental beauty. I mourn the passing of this extraordinary man and musical figure who died in January 2016. We will not see his like again.’

Oliver Knussen, Songs without Voices

‘Oliver Knussen has been an exceptionally close friend of mine for almost 40 years. It’s not hard to be in awe of his extraordinary qualities as a musician – both composer and conductor – though he is also one of the sweetest and funniest people I have ever met. I love many of his scores, this group of intricate miniatures perhaps most of all. The second movement has a luminous grandeur and depth of tone which belies the fact that only eight instruments are involved.’

Benjamin at the Barbican takes place on 18 & 19 March.

Listen to the playlist in full – and discover more music – on our Spotify.