Neue Vocalsolisten [Johanna Vargas (soprano), Truike van der Poel (mezzo-soprano), Martin Nagy (tenor), Guillermo Anzorema (baritone), Andreas Fischer (bass)]; Finchley Children’s Music Group, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Michael Wendeberg
Mason The Singing Tree (2020-3) [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World premiere]
Lachenmann Concertini (2005)
Town Hall, Birmingham
Friday 12 May 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s final concert this season also saw the conclusion of Tree City, a 16-year project that has seen Birmingham’s tree coverage increased by some 10% and an occasion marked by this Sound Investment commission from Christian Mason.
Among the leading UK composers, Mason (b1984) has written ambitious works before but none more so than The Singing Tree, a cantata whose seven movements unfold to a suitably arboreal text by Paul Griffiths. Despite its inclusion as an enlarged format in the programme, this was not easily readable under concert conditions (as its author wryly remarked), but of greater concern was its inaudibility during the actual performance; the intricacy of Mason’s writing for solo voices, children’s choir and large ensemble rather offsetting any such clarity.
A pity when Griffiths’ text, growing from the word ‘Tree’ such that each part multiplies by four (thus 1-4-16-64-256-1024), pertinently evokes the growth process alongside temporal and experiential evolution. Not that balance between the five solo voices, positioned centre-right of the platform, a 13-strong choir arrayed in the organ gallery, and an ensemble rich in timbral or textural possibilities seemed at fault, yet any sense of the music gaining gradually in emotional intensity to complement that of its musical complexity felt intermittent at best.
Most absorbing were those movements when Machaut’s rondeau Puis qu’en oubli threaded through the texture with tangible expressive intent, bringing to mind passages of comparable immediacy in seminal choral works by Berio, Kagel or Pousseur. Mason is demonstrably in that European lineage, making it more regrettable when despite its laudable intent – plus the commitment of Neue Vocalsolisten, Finchley Children’s Music Group and BCMG under the assured direction of Michael Wendeberg – his new piece made only an equivocal impression.
What it lacked in overall impact was given context in the second half, with a performance of Concertini by Helmut Lachenmann. Once notorious for (supposedly) predicating the gestural quality of sound, the composer’s more recent larger works exude a determination to align this with a tangible organic development – as heard in those climactic passages when the disparate sources coalesce for music sustained and visceral in its intent. Comparisons with the ataraxic progress of the lengthy final movement from Mason’s work were not to the latter’s advantage.
Once again, BCMG responded with conviction and no little finesse to Wendeberg’s direction – not least in the last third of this piece which had previously seemed to lose focus, but here readily conveyed the ensemble coming together in an audible while, this being Lachenmann, decidedly oblique resolution. Whatever else, the present work confronts and then overcomes those formal and expressive challenges it encounters to a degree that intrigues, frequently provokes but always engages the listener: something that should never be taken for granted. BCMG: NEXT earlier took the stage – pianist Rob Hao evincing due sensitivity in extracts from Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and in the eddying resonances of Wiegenmusik, before joining with flautist Emily Hicks for the plaintiveness of Mason’s Heaven’s Chimes are Slow.
You can read all about future events at the BCMG website. For more on the composers, visit sites dedicated to Christian Mason and Helmut Lachenmann – and for more on the performers, click on the names to read about Neue Vocalsolisten, Finchley Children’s Music Group and Michael Wendeberg