BCMG/Rattle – Barbican, 3 November

Acrostic Wordplay
Boots of Lead [London premiere: BCMG Sound Investment commission]
Chamber Concerto
Vielleicht zunächst wirklich nur

Nicole Tibbels (soprano)
Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

From Berlin to Birmingham, Sir Simon Rattle this afternoon brought the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group to London for its second appearance at the Barbican this year. Well planned as always – with Falla’s brief but radiant setting of Jean-Aubry’s Psyché an unexpectedly inward opening item, chastely sung by Rinat Shaham both before and after an electronic ’hum’ had been sorted out.

Johannes Maria Staud is a name new to the UK, though this 28-year-old Austrian has already begun making a name for himself in Western Europe. The present work – its title translating as ’perhaps next really only’ – was completed in 1999 and sets six stream-of-consciousness poems by Max Bense derived from the fragmented words of a shipwreck survivor. The music follows a freely associative logic, while remaining loyal to implicit speech patterns, with a precision and pathos recalling Webern and Kurtág. Powerfully conveyed by Nicole Tibbels (replacing Valdine Anderson), it was a pity that some of its impact was diffused in the too-ample Barbican acoustic.

No such problem affected Boots of Lead, the third in Simon Holt’s five-part series of Emily Dickinson settings. The poem, “I felt a Funeral in my Brain”, is one of Dickinson’s most searching – and, for all its characteristic fastidiousness of detail, Holt rather failed to capture its implosive power. The follow-through of the text – clearly rendered by Shaham – became lost as the piece slowed to near-immobility in its latter stages, while the offstage clarinet gave neither a spatial nor an expressive dimension to the music. Perhaps it will make a stronger impression when heard in the context of the complete cycle.

Although she has assembled a distinctive portfolio of compositions, Unsuk Chin is still best known for Acrostic Wordplay – the cycle after Michael Ende and Lewis Carroll that established her reputation over a decade ago. The influence of Ligeti is evident in the deriving of musical and expressive sense out of verbal ’situations’, and the imminent disaster that lurks behind the often-nonchalant demeanour of each song. There’s playfulness too – engagingly rendered by Tibbels – not always apparent in Chin’s later work.

After this it made sense to finish with a major work by Ligeti. Not a composer Rattle has featured often in his orchestral repertoire, his identification with the Chamber Concerto’s pristine textures and subtly-pointed contrasts in rhythmic continuity was apparent from the outset. The ostinato complex that comprises the third movement was softer grained than is customary, but the tri-tonal vista opened up in its predecessor was breathtaking, and the finale felt more than usually conclusive in its synthesis of previous ideas.

Despite the initial delay, we were treated to two movements from Birtwistle’s Bach Measures as an encore: their lucid expressiveness suggesting that Psyché had indeed been integral to the concert as a whole.

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