BCMG Birtwistle Birthday Concert


Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the CBSO Centre ****
The respect and admiration the concert-going public holds for Sir Harrison Birtwistle were evidently clear in a sellout house for BCMG's celebration of the composer's 85th birthday.
Birtwistle was among us, hearing the premiere of BCMG's latest Sound Investment commission, his ...when falling asleep, a setting for soaring soprano of poetry by Rilke and for speaker, fragments adapted from Swinburne's elegy for Baudelaire, Ave atque vale. This is an alter ego genre Birtwistle has made his own, and it works mesmerically well, atmospheric and enthralling as the protagonists (soprano Alice Rossi, expressive reciter Simone Leona Hueber) gradually merge in a developing empathy. The tiny BCMG ensemble responded deftly under Geoffrey Paterson's clear direction.
Two other Birtwistle works framed this premiere. Three Songs from the Holy Forest had Rossi in collaboration with Marie-Chrisine Zupancic's huskily ever-present alto flute, the instrumentalists providing a range of colour (not least the busy insistent piano in "dear dusty moth"), and Rossi brilliant in the taxing vocal dismemberment of "The Borrower". The Woman and the Hare had Rossi and Hueber collaborating again in a scenario of emotional exhaustion, Rossi's soprano sometimes dancing in the stratosphere.
And the indefatigable Rossi had earlier responded vividly to the immediacy of character of Cantor (it announces itself as grippingly as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire) by the Australian composer Lisa Illean, who we were told writes "acoustic and acousmatic music" (no, I don't know what the latter means. either). This Willa Cather setting is a score of immense personality, and Rossi accomplished well its high-lying, sustained vocal line.
The opening piece was conducted by none other than Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, obviously acknowledging the esteem in which the composer Rebecca Saunders is held in many quarters. Saunders' a visible trace is a lengthy, patiently-built piece exploring microtones and subtle instrumental timbres, but is lacking in any genuine rhythmic impetus despite the occasional incidents along the way, and had little sense of inevitability of structure.
Many devotees applauded adoringly, but at least one listener was left contemplating the Emperor's new clothes, not helped by the Pseuds' Corner programme-note and inaudible welcoming introductions from our well-meaning hosts.
Christopher Morley

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