Hugh Levick's new CD Remnants of Symmetry arrived at a perfect time for me; I was in the middle of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings' masterful biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Levick's fine suite for piano and string quartet Island & Exile, played beautifully here by Wilhem Latchoumia and the Diotima Quartet, became the soundtrack for the sad tale of the great writer's wanderings, early memories and his eventual death.
Benjamin travelled to Ibiza a number of times, beginning in 1924, since he felt the same attraction to the Mediterranean as Goethe and other Germans had before him. The first movement of Levick's piece, entitled Ibiza, is no sunny idyll, though, but full of foreboding, a presentiment of the fateful events to come. Indeed, the second movement is Ultima Multis, a reference Benjamin makes in his essay The Storytellerto the inscription he saw on a sundial in Ibiza ("the last day for many"). "Death is the sanction for everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death." The following movement, A Berlin Childhood, makes reference to Benjamin's memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, which he calls a series of "individual expeditions into the depths of memory." This evocative piece
takes us back to an earlier world just at the same time as Benjamin realized he would in all probability never be able to return. Levick ends with Exile, and as he tells the story of Benjamin's death at the Spanish border in 1940, fleeing from the Nazis, the music is full of the anger we all feel when we face the many, many stories of innocent people hounded from their homes, from those days until today.
The two other works on this disc are also very fine, full of incident and musically challenging. Constellationis a song cycle, performed here by Nicholas Isherwood with the Diotima Quartet. Texts are by authors as varied as William Blake and the 2nd century Gnostic writer Saint Thomas, and by Levick himself, I believe, though not credited in the liner booklet. Each of these songs makes a real impression, and stay with one for a long time after listening.
Arthur Koestler once said "Newton's apple & Cezanne's apple are discoveries more closely related than they seem." Science and art have fed off each other increasingly since the twin revolutions of post-Newtonian physics and modernism in the arts. With Remnants of Symmetry, featuring percussionists Daniel Ciampolini and Florent Jodelet and, again, the Diotima Quartet, Levick has set himself the most difficult of tasks: to tell the story of the creation of the universe, inspired, as he says, "by my lay reading" of current astrophysics. This is a subject that's been taken up by other composers in the past: I think of Haydn's The Creation, and before that, Jean-Fery Rebel’s Les Elements, but we have here a sophisticated interpretation of entropy, dark matter and silence, all in the context of the full palette of postmodern chamber music sounds.