BCMG Premiere

Berceuses du Chat
Three Songs from William Shakespeare
Elegy for JFK
Louis Andriessen
Letter from Cathy [UK premiere]
Book of Hours [BCMG Sound Investment commission 2005: World premiere]

Mary King (soprano)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Live electronics – Lamberto Coccioli & Scott Wilson

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oliver Knussen

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 January, 2005
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

This latest in an enterprising season of concerts given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group brought Oliver Knussen to the helm, for a varied concert which featured a UK premiere and the world premiere of the newest piece to be commissioned through the ensemble’s “Sound Investment” scheme.

As Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the past four years, Julian Anderson has consolidated his standing as an orchestral thinker of imagination and insight – witness the Symphony premiered at the end of 2003. At 24 minutes, Book of Hours, his new BCMG work, is on a larger scale – with a symphonic dimension that emerges as a consequence of its inspiration in two French medieval artefacts: the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” and the “Tapisseries La Dame à Licorne”. The contrasts so engendered give rise to a series of events over two parts of equal length, in a process combining formal intensification with a finely honed musical diversity. Part One builds in wave-like sequences to a vivid culmination; after which, Part Two streamlines salient ideas into a more dynamic design, bringing with it an extensive climax and, after a strategically-placed electronic interlude, a coda whose bucolic liveliness opens out onto decidedly new expressive terrain.

The role of live electronics is a new departure for Anderson and, while not disingenuous as such, his description of this component as akin to gold-leaf applied to a Medieval manuscript does not tell the whole story. The electronic sounds themselves are self-invented (with technical assistance from Lamberto Coccioli of the Birmingham Conservatoire and Scott Wilson of BEAST), and range from ideas which are texturally autonomous – as near the beginning of the piece – to those which enhance the instrumental contribution colouristically but never superficially. Bell sounds (beloved of electronic composers in the recent past) are largely avoided, though the motivic source of the work – the first four notes of the major scale – is endowed with ‘ringing’ resonance, while the electronic interlude itself is a heady synthesis of timbres and with a physical impact so often lacking in this field.

Book of Hours was given a vibrant and responsive premiere by the BCMG players – alert to the many requirements of balance and shading posed by the score, with the loudspeaker placement ensuring due projection of the electronic component. Further hearings will confirm whether the initial minutes of Part Two are quite the re-composition intended, or if the distancing effect created by having the opening of Part One played at the start of its successor as if on a ‘scratchy LP’ is undermined by thereprise that then gets underway. One certainty is that Anderson has created a powerful and involving electro-acoustic work that reaffirms the possibilities inherent in such a problem-fraught medium.

Focussing on the music of two ‘old masters’, the concert’s first half offered first a breviary of Stravinsky the writer of songs – which genre features prominently in his music around World War One. Mary King had a raw pungency right for the folksong stylisation of “Pribaoutki”, and brought a keen insouciance to the faux naïveté of “Berceuses du Chat” (lovely clarinet playing from Messrs Lines, Deacon and Cowley). She was less at home in the lyrical austerity of the songs setting Shakespeare, where Stravinsky plays fast and loose with serial principles in a way prophetic of the works to come.

Louis Andriessen’s brief Letter from Cathy, which sets a communiqué from Cathy Berberian to the composer concerning her recordings with Stravinsky, veers between the literal and the whimsical with due understatement. King entered fully into its spirit, as she did the piece which Berberian helped inspire – the brief but affecting “Elegy for JFK” which points up Stravinsky’s undoubted Webernian leanings to telling effect.

If these late songs appear to honour a debt to the recent musical past, then Dialogues (2003) could be viewed as Elliott Carter’s reassessment of the ‘piano-orchestra’ relationship of his Piano Concerto from almost four decades earlier. Yet what was then confrontational is now capricious, even playful – the soloist circulating within the ensemble in a manner, if not without peremptory asides, that is witty, laconic and inherently civilised discourse of equals. Whether or not it consciously emulates the concerto precept from Bach, via Mozart, to Stravinsky, Dialogues is a delight to mind and ear – with the light touch and incisive pianism of Nicolas Hodges ideally suited to this music (his forthcoming recording, part of an all-Carter collection with Knussen and the London Sinfonietta on Bridge, is to be keenly anticipated). BCMG was, as ever, disciplined and eloquent in its advocacy.

  • This concert was repeated in Manchester on 29 January and there recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3
  • BCMG

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