S&H Concert Review

Krása: Symphony for Small Orchestra Ligeti: Piano Concerto Colin Matthews: Continuum (World premiere, BCMG Sound Investment commission) Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Sir Simon Rattle; Cynthia Clarey (mezzo-soprano) Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Barbican Hall, 10 October 00 (RW)

Save for part- and late-night Proms, the present concert by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, opening a European tour, was their first full-length appearance in London; with a programme that drew together several strands of theirs, and Sir Simon Rattle's, preoccupations over the past decade.

Certainly the 1923 Symphony by Hans Krása follows in the wake of Rattle's interest in Goldschmidt and the predominantly Jewish generation of composers, who either perished or were effectively silenced by The Third Reich's cultural policies. The influence of Schoenberg can be detected in the intricate part-writing, as can that of Milhaud, whose cycle of Petits Symphonies was taking shape at much the same time; while the sequence of Pastorale, March and vocal Finale points to the anti-symphonic ethos of the period. The music moves between blithe tranquility and sardonic unease, culminating in a German setting of Rimbaud's Les chercheuses de poux that poetically scuppers any hint of formal coherence. Cynthia Clarey sang her whimsical part with plain-spun charm, while BCMG were clearly at home in Krása's understated but engaging soundworld.

Ligeti's Piano Concerto has all but become a repertoire item in London these days (I reckon this the fourth performance in barely a year) and, with its virtuosic role for a highly individuated ensemble, is tailor-made for BCMG. Pierre-Laurent Aimard had chosen (?) to be situated well on the left of the platform, at right-angles to the ensemble, giving the solo part a more confrontational quality than its frequently concertante nature might suggest. There were one or two mis-timings in the outer movements, which closer physical integration may have prevented, but the corruscating emotional plunges of the 'Lento e deserto' have never sounded more plangent, and overall this was a characterful account of a work that, as does all his recent music, rewrites the rules Ligeti's way.

The second half was devoted to the world premiere of Continuum, a substantial (41-minute) 'scena' (the composer's description) for voice and large ensemble by Colin Matthews. The work has evolved over three years, resulting in a setting of two substantial poems by Eugenio Montale - Crisalide (sung in Italian) and House by the Sea (sung in English) - with lengthy instrumental interludes after the former and before the final verse of the latter, the whole framed by epigrams by Rilke in the composer's translation. An ambitious undertaking then, and one which, at least on first hearing, has to be counted a disappointment.

The texts take up, in oblique and intriguing ways, qualities of change and transience, and the music seems to be in a constant state of transition, with the stark opening chords for piano and brass - almost a paradigm for British new music over the last two decades - returning at focal points in its progress, and the forceful rhetoric of the opening Rilke setting given heightened emotional resonance at the close. Montale's poetry is awash with imagery and layers of meaning; the physical sublimated into the emotional with little concern for linear causality. Crisalide, in particular, moves at a rapid rate, and Matthews only intermittently opens-out its lyrical quality, not helped by instrumental writing that, in seeking to complement and expand on the vocal line, too often sacrifices clarity for detail that congeals texture and inhibits momentum. The central interlude again verges on the rhythmically turgid, but House by the Sea at least works the poetry's resignation up to a catharsis, motivated by a second interlude which features writing of welcome translucency. If Cynthia Clarey did not always sing with eloquence, she projected the vocal writing clearly through the instrumental maze. Rattle directed with commitment, and further performances may reveal greater conviction in the work as a whole.

BCMG was among the first orchestra-derived new music groups to emerge in the late 1980s and, on the evidence of tonight's showing, they rank with the best. I wish them well for their tour, and look forward to future visits with their wide-ranging and forward-looking repertoire. [Find out more about BCMG's Sound Investment scheme from soundinv@bcmg.org.uk]

Richard Whitehouse

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