In concert – Do we need a new compass? / Anna Dennis & BCMG NEXT @ CBSO Centre, Birmingham


Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

Anna Dennis (soprano), BCMG NEXT (Rebecca Speller (flute), Heather Ryall (clarinet), Claudia Dehnke (violin), Cameron Howe (viola) Carwyn Jones (cello), Joe Howson (piano) / Leo Geyer (conductor)

Querfurth cold pastoral (2021) [UK Premiere]
 Black Rain (2021) [UK Premiere]

Anna Dennis (soprano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Robert Looman (flute), Nicholas Cox (clarinet), Kate Suthers (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Goerge Barton (percussion), John Reid (piano) / Gabriella Teychenné

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has been involved in various cross-national projects over its 35 years, with Do we need a new compass? one of the most ambitious: three concerts in three countries by three ensembles, with BCMG joining Bologna’s FontanaMix Ensemble and Hannover’s Das Neue Ensemble in commissioning two composers to write for one of the other ensembles. This last of three concerts featured two UK premieres next to a piece whose influence, conceptually and musically, has been far-reaching in the 120 years of its existence.

Whether through its eliding between cabaret and art-song, or its scoring for mixed ensemble, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire still blazes a trail. This performance duly played to the virtues of these ‘three times seven poems’ – Anna Dennis teasing a deft elegance from ‘Moondrunk’ and forlorn yearning from ‘A Pallid Washerwoman’, her rapt intertwining with flute in ‘The Sick Moon’ a highlight. The second part was less consistent – the ominous menace of ‘Night’ a little tepid, then the graphic imagery of ‘Red Mass’ falling short of its climactic violence.

Not so the stark evocation of ‘The Crosses’ as set the tone for the gradual pacification of the third part – from the suffused melancholy of ‘Homesickness’, through the visceral irony of ‘The Moon Fleck’ (its canonic interplay a stern test of coordination as was amply fulfilled), to the distanced nostalgia of ‘O Ancient Scent’ with its numbed sense of re-arrival. Dennis was never less than persuasive in these settings, and Leo Geyer ensured that BCMG NEXT brought character as well as discipline to Schoenberg’s always resourceful instrumentation.

A tough challenge, moreover, for the new pieces which came after the interval. Interesting that that by Kaspar Querfurth should have sounded the more ‘Italian’ – the restrained, even austere ambience of cold pastoral bringing to mind the deadpan ambivalence found in the later music of Donatoni and Aldo Clementi, for all that the vestigial evolving of its motifs went some way to conjuring a musical evocation of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn – or at least those final two lines when the object being contemplated utters its indelible response.

His extensive involvement in electroacoustics was evident in Daniele Ghisi’s Black Rain, though the earlier stages in his setting of lyrics by Andrea Agostini were for the most part understated in their interaction between voice, ensemble and electronics; the latter coming   to the fore gradually while remorselessly so as to envelop the soundstage in a coruscating resonance – above which, Dennis’s voice emerged as an expressive focal point. ‘Immersive’ is a rather overused term these days, but the present piece more than justified this epithet.

It helped in these latter works that the BCMG musicians was so responsive to the direction of Gabriella Teychenné, whose activity with London-based Sinfonia Humanitas has rightly been attracting plaudits. She was wholly justified, too, in having begun the second half with the First Postlude (1981) by Valentin Silvestrov – the Ukrainian composer’s homage to his Russian forebear Shostakovich, whose ‘strength through calmness’ is a potent reminder of music’s ability to reach across boundaries to a degree exemplified by this evening’s concert.

Further information on BCMG events in the 2021/22 season can be found at their website. Click on the names to read more detail on composers Kaspar Querfurth and Daniele Ghisi, or for more on Anna Dennis, Leo Geyer and Gabriella Teychenné

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