Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – 3 February

Julian Anderson
Alhambra Fantasy
Huw Watkins
Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments
Gerald Barry
Dead March [BCMG Sound Investment commission: London premiere]
Mark-Anthony Turnage
Bass Inventions [London premiere]

Ulrich Heinen (cello)
Dave Holland (double bass)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Peter Rundel

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

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

Visits to London by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are happily becoming more frequent occurrences. The present afternoon concert featured the London premiere of a substantial new work by Mark- Anthony Turnage and, in the first half, three recent chamber works – each around 13 minutes in duration and all representing their composers at something like their best.

Alhambra Fantasy, Julian Anderson’s “celebration of the art and architecture of the Alhambra Palace in Granada” (to quote the composer), is a resourceful and questing work for 16 players in two parts. That the first concerns itself with the physicality of the palace, and the second its environment, is of less import than the way in which each part accumulates sound and energy on its way to a climax that, in the latter instance, clinches the entire work – as a slowed down reassessment of the faster music which preceded it. Such a strategy communicates directly because of the relaxed rigour of Anderson’s formal thinking, and the finesse with which he controls harmony and texture over the course of the piece.

Huw Watkins is rapidly making a name for himself as composer and pianist. Premiered two years ago by the Nash Ensemble, Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments is a three-movement work, almost classically lucid in its fast-slow-fast format. What impresses is the subtlety with which Watkins manipulates this template, so that the music reaches a peak of restrained inner intensity in the central ’Lento’, then finds a natural release in the tranquil coda that closes the work. The presence of early Henze is discernible in the melodic language, though the lucidity of content is clearly a personal trait. Ulrich Heinen gave a focused and thoughtful reading of this deceptively unassuming piece.

There is often a strain of dangerously deadpan humour in Gerald Barry’s work, and Dead March shows it to perfection. A fantasy of riotous melodic lines, kept in check by Barry’s ingenious and typically subversive use of pauses, the piece generates forward momentum through its constantly arrested sense of linear development. The scoring, as so often with this composer, is viscerally immediate but never wayward in its assaultative presence. Barry’s very individual take on the element of black comedy seldom emerges so precisely or unnervingly as here.

Bass Inventions is the latest of Turnage’s synthesis of jazz and classical elements. Written for Dave Holland – bassist on several classic late &#146 60s Miles Davis albums and in Chick Corea’s influential Circle band, and an ensemble player of distinction – the 40-minute work comprises four movements of unequal length and, in all honesty, uneven musical interest. The opening ’Vocalise’ has the bittersweet lyricism that is a Turnage hallmark, while ’Riffs and Refrains’ puts the ensemble through a scintillating sequence of variations on the opening bass ’ground’, before an unexpectedly tranquil close. ’Meditation’ is an intricate cadenza in all but name, before ’Workout’ engages soloist and ensemble in an extensive and cumulative series of dialogues before a return to the mood of the very opening.

The first two movements complement each other in all respects, and the ’cadenza’ arrives at just the right point to prepare for a finale to wrap up the work’s overall concept. That it fails to do so seems to lie in its rather prolix follow-through, the culmination seeming contrived rather than inevitable. Moreover, though Turnage has taken great care to integrate the bass writing into the ensemble, and the composed and improvisational elements dovetail effortlessly, the bass part itself has a uniform quality that does not always meet the work’s formal potential. Certainly the self-composed encore that Holland gave was in a different gear in terms of its dynamic expression.

A special mention for Peter Rundel, whose prowess in contemporary music is only now making an impact on these shores. BCMG responded with alacrity to his direction, indicating a likely partnership in the making. As an ensemble of soloists, they now rank with Europe’s finest.

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