Cage The Perilous Night (1944)
Woolrich Watermark (2010)
Bray Midnight Interludes (2010)
Crumb Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) (1964)
Anderson Capriccio (2017); Sensation – Nuits (2015/16)
Jia Ripples in Spacetime II (2017)
Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Mark O’Brien (clarinets), Colette Overdijk (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello) John Reid (piano)]
Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 12 November 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
This recital by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group promised ‘‘An evening of starlight-inspired music’’, the environs of Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space – part of the recently completed refurbishment of Symphony Hall’s main foyers – showcasing a programme which ranged over 75 years of creativity. The attraction of Ice Skate Birmingham provided a scenic backdrop, and if the reflection from a repeating promo-video for B:Music proved on occasion distracting, it never drew attention away from the music heard or those musicians playing it.
John Cage may have been at emotional and aesthetic crossroads at the time of The Perilous Night, but its deft sequence of vignettes – obliquely inspired by Irish folktales – finds him at his most focussed and engaging when writing for prepared piano. It certainly drew a lively response from John Reid, who characterized the pieces with great delicacy but also a rigour which prevented them from sounding decorous. Cage later undertook more ambitious works in the medium, yet without recapturing the elegance and inquisitiveness demonstrated here.
More metaphysical matters are addressed by John Woolrich in Watermark, its imaginative interplay for bass clarinet and violin likened to ‘‘Planets revolving around the same sun’’ and whose juxtaposing same or similar material accrues palpable momentum before its dispersal. One of Charlotte Bray’s most notable scores is her song-cycle Midnight Closes after Thomas Hardy, and Midnight Interludes draws on the same texts for three miniatures that summoned a quizzical and sometimes even brusque response from Mark O’Brien and Ulrich Heinen.
When George Crumb wrote Four Nocturnes for violin and piano as the second of his Night Music series, he was embarking on his most productive phase. Echoes of Bartók and Webern are frequent, though the finesse with which the composer elides between these apparent poles of dynamism and introspection is captivating – particularly when realized with the sensitivity and attentiveness of Colette Overdijk, in a performance to remind one that Crumb is too often overlooked as part of a decade (the 1920s) with more than its share of compositional mastery.
Next came two piano pieces by Julian Anderson. Capriccio is a heartfelt yet never turgid memorial to Steven Stuckey, its balance between precision and playfulness a reminder that the latter composer was a leading authority on the music of Lutosławski. More elaborate is Sensation, a cycle of six movements playable either separately or in various combinations – of which Nuits ‘‘presents the sounds and perfumes of the night’’ in music by turns evocative and ominous, all the while encompassing the extent of the keyboard to an enticing degree.
Finally, to Jia Guoping and a welcome revival for Ripples in Spacetime II. Drawing upon cosmic waves as emitted from a pulsar, the piece evolves in terms as emphasise the timbral diversity of its instrumental quartet. Its pitches derived from the acronym CHINA FAST (a radio telescope), its playing techniques evoke traditional Chinese instruments over the course of a capricious interplay between those competing (and ultimately irreconcilable?) claims of innovation and tradition – making for an absorbing end to a thoughtfully planned programme.
Hopefully BCMG will return to this performance-space during the second half of this season (details of which are imminent). Next month sees a recital by the musicians of NEXT at the Centrala Gallery in the suburb of Digbeth, providing another change of scene and ambience.
Further information on future events can be found at the BCMG website