Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen – Melodien, To These Dark Steps, Messiaen, Webern

Pièce pour piano et quatour à cordes
Six Pieces, Op.6 [transcription for 13 players]
Duos (for two violins)
To These Dark Steps [BCMG Sound Investment commission: world premiere]

Alexandra Wood & Lena Zeliszweska (violins)

Christopher Gillett (tenor)

Members of CBSO Youth Chorus

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 September, 2012
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Oliver Knussen at a rehearsal with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Photo: Guardian/David SillitoeIt hardly seems 25 years since Birmingham Contemporary Music Group came into existence: its tentative (albeit in terms of repertoire rather than playing) early seasons giving way to some audacious programming at the turn of the 1990s before, in partnership with Birmingham Jazz, yielding a succession of stimulating years – at the centre of which were the first fruits of the Sound Investment scheme that has given rise to some 65 commissions and helped to keep BCMG at the forefront of new music-making in the UK. This concert marked that quarter-century with a typically enterprising programme under the direction of regular collaborator Oliver Knussen and featuring a commission by Alexander Goehr.

Goehr was represented before the interval by the first set of what is intended to become a whole book of Duos for two violins – these first eight pieces (2006) proceeding less as a series of (more or less) autonomous items than as a series of variations on the unison melody heard at the outset, each of them expanding in complexity and duration until culminating in a taut though plangent lament which places the initial melody in telling relief. Alexandra Wood and Lena Zeliszweska were assured exponents of music, while it makes no false concessions in terms of the medium or of Goehr’s mature idiom, which offers an arresting perspective on both and so makes one look forward to continuation.

The remainder of the first half consisted of three works by seminal twentieth-century figures, whose music BCMG has assiduously advocated. Messiaen was represented by the brief yet eventful Pièce (1991) written for the 90th-birthday of publisher Alfred Schlee, in which Wood and Zeliszweska were joined by violist Christopher Yates, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Malcolm Wilson in this rare instance of the composer’s chamber music. After which came the equally rare chance to hear Webern’s Six Pieces (1909) in its realisation for 13 players – strings and woodwind combining with piano and harmonium in a reduction that, while it may sacrifice the ultimate in expressive intensity at the explosive endings of the second and fourth pieces, is never less than a faithful recasting of the music’s intrinsic gestures; one which comes into its own, moreover, in the final two pieces with their inward transcendence of earlier traumas. Knussen was as unfailingly insightful here as in Ligeti’s Melodien (1971) which closed the first half. A vital stage in its composer’s recreation of the musical past, its focussing on melodic proliferation is achieved with a deft mastery not least in terms of a formal follow-through as alters in perception on each hearing: one reason, no doubt, why Knussen repeated the 11-minute work straight off; the other being simply that few would willingly deny themselves the pleasure of hearing this music a second time.

Alexander Goehr. Photo: Etan TalThe second half was devoted to To These Dark Steps (2011) – Alexander Goehr’s work for tenor, children’s choir and ensemble on texts by Gabriel Levin. Although his Jewish heritage has been a constant preoccupation, Goehr has rarely broached on the overtly political and does so here by means that are the more acute for their obliquity – namely Levin’s poems which, written during the 2008 bombing of Gaza, led to his listening exclusively to twentieth-century music: references to such as Bartók, Feldman, Ligeti, Messiaen and Webern featuring prominently in the 13 texts that form the basis for the present work.

Goehr has divided these into four parts (of roughly nine minutes each), over the course of which soloist and choir alternate – though only rarely combine – in a sequence which makes a virtue of its expressive austerity, guitar and tuned percussion central to an instrumentation that readily underpins the immediacy of that being communicated. No surprise when the final setting reaches a close that, if not quite ‘in mid-air’, accords with the uncompromising spirit of the whole.

The performance appeared to leave nothing to chance, with Christopher Gillett (replacing an indisposed Andrew Staples) eloquent and demonstrative in his contribution and the CBSO Youth Chorus sounding plaintive yet never lacking in the expressive alacrity demanded of it by both text and music. Oliver Knussen drew a committed response from the players, setting the seal on an absorbing new piece which one looks forward to re-encountering. A typically combative start, too, to the BCMG’s current season such as promises to be an eventful one in its combination of established classics along with commissions. With that in mind, one can only salute BCMG’s achievements so far and look forward to the next 25 years.

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