In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Mark-Anthony Turnage

Mark-Anthony-Turnage

Pre-Concert Event:
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2021)
Skempton Heinen Skizzen (2021) [BCMG Commission: World premiere]
Colette Overdijk (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello)

Concert:
Turnage This Silence (1992)
Alberga On a Bat’s Back I do Fly (2000)
Saunders Stirrings (2011)
Turnage Concertino for Clarinet and Ensemble (2020) [BCMG commission: World premiere]

Jon Carnac (clarinet), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Thomas Kemp

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Sunday 12 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group began its new season with a concert centred around music from Mark-Anthony Turnage, and what should have been a premiere to mark his 60th birthday last year but which still left a favourable impression however belated its emergence.

First came an earlier Turnage piece, This Silence drawing clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet into an intensive dialogue whose opening Dance built up a fair momentum that the ensuing Dirge channelled towards an eloquent if by no means unruffled set of variations as found just tentative closure. Three decades (and a brief Uli fanfare) later, Concertino exudes a far more relaxed aura, doubtless occasioned by its being a tribute to clarinettist (and fellow sexagenarian) Jon Carnac – his artistry to the fore in the playful Study in Fifths and incisive Carnac with its ingenious workout on the soloist’s name. In between, a soulful Romanza afforded contrast but if this and the final Sad Soliloquy found Turnage’s cool-jazz leanings at their smoothest, the alluring interplay of clarinet and ensemble was no less appealing for it.

In between these works came, firstly, a timely revival for Eleanor Alberga. On a Bat’s Back   I do Fly takes its cue from Ariel’s final song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest for music whose fluid contrasts of motion and expressive force, ably drawn into a cohesive whole, brought an agile response from BCMG – not least percussionist Julian Warburton. Appreciably different was Stirrings, the third in a sequence of ‘‘quiet and fragile collage compositions’’ by Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders, which took extracts from Samuel Beckett as the starting-point for an evocative soundscape whose simple yet effective spatial disposition – woodwind being situated around the gallery, with strings and piano spread across the platform – audibly enhanced the succession of echoes and resonances informing this frequently intangible score.

The pre-concert event (essentially the first half, given the interval which followed) brought a welcome further hearing of Ma Xiao-Qing’s Back to the Beginning, arguably the most striking of the ‘Soliloquys and Dialogues’ series written for BCMG musicians during the pandemic – violinist Colette Overdijk eliding between some vividly rhetorical passagework and spoken interpolations with a confidence borne of familiarity. Ulrich Heinen then gave the premiere of Heinen Skizzen, a miniature wholly typical of Howard Skempton in its deceptive simplicity.

This latter piece ably served its purpose of honouring Heinen’s retirement from BCMG after 35 years of commitment to the ensemble and its music-making. Not a few listeners (including the present writer) fondly recall his cycle of Bach’s Cello Suites given at St. Paul’s, Hockley in the late 1980s, with his subsequent recordings of the initial five of these – placed within a stimulating contemporary context – well worth investigating on the Métier Sound and Vision label. Hopefully his retirement will not preclude the occasional reappearance with BCMG.

Back to the present, this evening’s main concert is being repeated at West Malling in Kent on September 26th, with BCMG’s subsequent recitals in Birmingham and Bristol on November 12th and 13th. A full programme of activities for the 2021/22 season hopefully (!) lies ahead.

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Ulrich Heinen’s Bach can be found at the Divine Arts website

On record – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Presto website