Last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted on this occasion by Oliver Knussen, was a typically tightly-packed affair, featuring seven works (plus an encore) that, despite their respective brevity, added up to a concert that was surprisingly lengthy and filling. Calling it an embarrassment of riches wouldn’t be exactly right, although both of those epithets made their presence felt. Of the former, there was the usual helping of forgettable Faberian froth, represented this time by Julian Anderson‘s The Comedy of Change and, to a lesser extent, Polly Roe by BCMG’s new Composer-in-Residence Patrick Brennan. Anderson’s overlong, seven-movement work—the title of which bore no relation to what one actually heard—was another iteration of his endless recycling of the same small pool of ideas, spiky staccatos firing away upon distorted unison melodic blather, not so much animated as made to twitch like electrified frog’s legs with large doses of velocity and rhythmic rigour. In practice, it had the substance of crêpe paper (one hesitates to call it a work of crêpe), with the exception of the second movement, which opted for an attractive, mildly soporofic soundworld akin to a warm bath—complete with bath bomb, in the form of some percussively crumpled paper—and the first half of the final movement, where for the first time the music’s inner vitality didn’t sound artificially-induced. Patrick Brennan’s Polly Roe, by contrast, was more engaging despite (and perhaps in part because of) its 5-minute duration; admittedly, the piece occupied itself with a not dissimilar environment to Anderson in its first half, moving from a collection of wonky Es into a taut but dull rhythmic machine, but was very much more interesting when the order became lost, regularity being swallowed up in layers of overlapping chaos. Its hard to form an impression of a composer from something as short as this, so for now, best to record an open verdict.
BCMG has always played fast and loose with the ‘C’ in their name, and last night’s special guest old-timer was Stravinsky. His 1916 chamber opera/ballet Renard won the prize of the evening for clarity, but he did have both a text and a narrative on his side. It’s always a treat to hear Renard, and this particular rendition of it was brilliantly brisk, Knussen barely giving the music even a moment to draw breath. (Touchingly, Knussen dedicated the performance to Stravinsky’s long-standing assistant and sidekick Robert Craft, who died last week.) Of the four additional voices, tenors Tom Raskin and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, in the roles of the cock and the fox, were really outstanding, luxuriating in the macabre events of the story. Clarity of a different order could be heard in Gunther Schuller‘s Games, being heard in its first public performance in the UK. This was included both to commemorate Schuller’s passing earlier this year and also to celebrate what would have been his 90th birthday on November 22nd. This piece really did bear relation to its title; there’s something of a flashmob mentality running throughout, ideas being presented by someone and quickly taken up by the whole ensemble, thrown around and played with for a while before moving on to another (in many ways, it felt like watching an intimate, private game being played). A sense of leadership is kept nicely vague, with key protagonists constantly shifting, and Schuller never allows the music to become too definite either; highly rhythmic and lyrical ideas jostle in close proximity, nowhere more so than its seriously regular climax, immediately succeeded by completely broken and disjointed material. Its harmonic language was rich and attractive, although this was of secondary importance to the ensemble’s group behaviour, which is what above all carries and propels the piece and makes it cohere. In fact, the fluidity and cogency of its onward sense of development was such that one could imagine the piece continuing almost indefinitely. Richer still was the new work from BCMG oboist Melinda Maxwell; despite the title, Fractures: Monk Unpacked, there was no meaningful aural connection to Thelonius Monk, but that seemed beside the point. The piece is fascinatingly complex, in terms of its ebb and flow, the nature of its melodic tone of voice and its harmonic language. In contrast to some other works in the concert, Maxwell broke free from the fetters of predictability and convention; in this respect the percussion was particularly striking (no pun intended), both in the way it wildly erupted when one least expected it, and also in its timbral qualities, Maxwell opting almost exclusively for dry, non-resonant sounds, sidestepping the usually ineluctable draw that metallic percussion seems to have on composers. Dynamically (with the exception of the very end), the piece could have done with wider extremes, which would have suited its material better, but overall its inherent spontaneity—no doubt a by-product of Maxwell’s recent explorations of jazz—and convoluted mode of expression were highly appealing; a piece that really needs further listens to grasp more fully the intricacies of what’s going on.
Easily the most far-reaching and persistent impact of the evening, though, came from Hans Abrahamsen. His arrangements of four of Schoenberg’s Op. 19 Klavierstücke were exquisite miniature windows into seemingly vast worlds. They brought to mind the work of Turner Prize artist Richard Wright, each piece a beautifully coloured veneer; the third piece, ‘Sehr langsame Viertelnote’ went further, entering an immersive kind of darkness, extended in the fourth, featuring an unsettling kind of glistening sheen. Even more entrancing, though, was Abrahamsen’s tiny Liebeslied (included on a wonderful double-CD reviewed last year), which becomes so thin as to be almost vaporous, bearing the tiniest of tendrils within; like sounds moving on a microscope slide, it’s so achingly fragile that it feels almost painful. Together with the Schoenberg arrangements, Abrahamsen’s music made a profound and haunting impression, superbly performed by the ensemble showing impeccable control and restraint, Knussen’s movements reducing to the barest of batonic flickers. It was here that we heard BCMG at their most rare and sublime.