In concert – Do we need a new compass? / BCMG NEXT @ Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

compass

Meredith Four to the Floor (2005)
Heather Ryall, Emily Wilson, Beth Nicholl, George Blakesley (bass clarinets)

Mason Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow (2010)
Rebecca Speller (flute), Joe Howson (piano)

Howard Cloud Chamber (2006)
Emily Wilson (clarinet), Mikaella Livadiotis (piano)

Anderson Scherzo with Trains (1993)
Heather Ryall, George Blakesley (clarinets), Beth Nichol (basset horn), Emily Wilson (b-clarinet)

Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

BCMG NEXT may have had a major role in tonight’s concert at CBSO Centre, itself marking the culmination of a major project that has already featured events in Bologna and Hannover, but it was a worthwhile move to include more of these young musicians in a lunchtime recital.

Anna Meredith has written numerous chamber pieces, among which Four to the Floor has an immediate appeal – not least through the uniform line-up of its clarinet quartet in music whose methodical exploration of timbre almost inevitably results in the descent intimated by its title. It may have been a transcription of the final item from his song-cycle after Christina Rosetti, but Christian Mason’s Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow felt no less evocative in this incarnation for flute and piano – not least as rendered with such poise by Rebecca Speller and Joe Howson.

Emily Howard’s composing career has unfolded parallel to her scientific research, such that Cloud Chamber bridges any likely divide through its iridescent timbral interplay for clarinet and piano – realized here with precision and verve by Emily Wilson and Mikaella Livadiotis. The recital ended with Scherzo (with trains), one of Julian Anderson’s most engaging shorter works whose inspiration in Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains puts its diverse clarinet quartet through an unpredictable discourse here ensuring a characterful performance.

This diverse and enjoyable recital was also the second BCMG-related event to be held at the Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, adjacent to the Circle level at Symphony Hall – itself much improved as a setting with the overhead promotional screen turned off for the duration.

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 Julian Anderson, Emily Howard, or for more on Christian Mason and Anna Meredith

In concert – Echoes/BCMG NEXT @ Centrala

bcmg-next-centrala

Anderson Scherzo (with trains) (1993)
Salonen
Pentatonic Étude (2008)
Birtwistle
Duets for Storab (1983)
Donatoni
Soft (1989)
Finnis
Brother (2012/15)

Musicians from BCMG NEXT

Centrala, Digbeth, Birmingham
Thursday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may not be the most easily locatable arts venue of those within Birmingham’s inner suburbs, but Centrala – launched almost a decade ago as a base for the dissemination and promotion of Central and Easter European cultures – was an appealing space for this latest recital featuring NEXT musicians from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The performance area itself might have been compact to a fault, but there no feeling of excessive restriction in the course of what was a varied yet balanced programme of works stretching across almost four decades.

It began in invigorating fashion with a timely revival of Scherzo (with trains) whose premiere at Wigmore Hall was an early success for Julian Anderson – being one of his most engaging works for ensemble and a major contribution to its genre. Drawing inspiration from Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains, two clarinets (Heather Ryall and George Blakesley), basset horn (Beth Nichol) and bass clarinet (Emily Wilson) unfold an unpredictable discourse; one whose requirements of technique and coordination were met in this assured performance.

A pity that the scheduled account of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra was lost through Covid-related issues, but a further hearing for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude was certainly no hardship. This testing paraphrase on a passage from Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto puts the soloist through its paces, restating the original in an understated apotheosis realized by Cameron Howe with evident sensitivity. Also reappearing from NEXT’s recent recital at Coventry Cathedral was Harrison Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab. Written when the composer lived on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay, its inspiration lies in locations each having the name of a Viking prince whose shipwreck, pursuit and death are charted over six evocative pieces. Flautists Rebecca Speller and Leila Hooton were heard in (mainly) whimsical accord.

The music of Franco Donatoni enjoyed a brief vogue here in the decade before his death, but there have been few performances since – so making this revival of Soft the more welcome. Written for the late Harry Sparnaay, the bass clarinet’s doughtiest champion, this tensile and eventful piece feels typical of his late maturity in the way that seemingly detached, and even arbitrary gestures gradually build into a cohesive and cumulative continuity; one in which the expressive possibilities of the instrument are explored intensively though with no little irony.

Heather Ryall proved no mean exponent of this piece, as were Claudia Dehnke and Cameron Howe of Brother by Edmund Finnis. Written while he was composer-in-residence with the London Contemporary Orchestra, its four movements chart a gradually elaborating interplay between violin and viola, evolving from the meditative and incremental to the energetic and demonstrative – without the rapport between these instruments drawing apart in the process. Suffice to add the present performance lacked for nothing in terms of incisiveness or finesse.

It also brought to a close this final BCMG event for 2021. Dates of further performances are being announced in the new year, and it would be a shame if these not to feature a return to Centrala – well worth a visit by anyone who happens to be passing through Birmingham B5.

Further information on the BCMG can be found at their website. For more on NEXT Musicians click here, then on each of the composers names for the websites of Julian Anderson (with an alternative here), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Harrison Birtwistle, Franco Donatoni and Edmund Finnis. Finally for more information on the Centrala venue, click here

In concert – BCMG: Nights

bcmg-nights

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

In concert – Alban Gerhardt, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Straight from the Heart

kazuki-yamada

Alban Gerhardt (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Anderson Litanies (2018-19) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1884-5)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 June 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Alban Gerhardt courtesy of Kaupo Kikkias

Losing the greater part of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s schedule across the past two seasons has meant postponing many of its ‘Centenary Commissions’, but of those which have been rescheduled, none was more keenly anticipated than that of Julian Anderson’s Litanies.

Anderson produced four works during his tenure as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence over 2001-5, this new piece renewing its formal and expressive archetypes by fresh and intriguing means. The first of three continuous sections presents cello and orchestra – its modest forces including double wind, harp and piano, their pitches modified by a quarter-tone – as sparring partners in propulsive, toccata-like music. This gradually mutates into a central slow section, whose fraught lyricism intensifies (with unexpected if effective assistance from the orchestra) towards a chorale in memory of Oliver Knussen. From here an increasingly animated cadenza leads to a capricious, dance-like final section that culminates in a splenetic orchestral outburst; the soloist then resuming for a soulful postlude which brings about a calmly equivocal close.

Alban Gerhardt (below) made the most of some finely gauged technical challenges, as he overcame passing vagaries of sound-balance (and what appeared to be a leg injury) to give a confident realization of a piece already heard in Paris, Örebro and Lausanne. The CBSO was no less assured under Kazuki Yamada; if balance between strings and wind occasionally lost focus (second violins placed further to the rear of the platform than would normally be the case), this did little to offset the attractions of a notable addition to the contemporary repertoire.

During a break for platform rearrangement, the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor spoke of his gratitude that audiences were again able to attend live concerts. Something of this evident pleasure came through the ensuing performance of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony – not least an opening Allegro that, despite a few tentative string entries, undoubtedly had the measure of its stoic defiance and underlying seriousness of purpose. Best was a coda whose dramatic initial stages subsided effortlessly and inevitably into sombre rumination towards the close.

The highlight, however, was a slow movement whose Poco adagio marking was studiously observed – Yamada infusing the emotional ebb and flow of a movement whose formal follow -through can seem fitful with unfailing poise, the CBSO wind eloquent in their contribution. Nor was anything amiss in the Scherzo, its ‘furiant’ rhythm audible not just in the trenchant outer sections but also the trio where its simmering presence ensured no let-up in tension on route to a subtly modified reprise then explosive coda. The final Allegro capped the reading accordingly – Yamada never rushing its stealthy alternation between starkness and lyricism, while ably negotiating several testing changes in tempo as the composer ratchets up tension going into an apotheosis whose inherent fatalism was enhanced by the resplendent playing.

A gripping performance, then, as was met with a suitably enthusiastic response. The CBSO is back this Friday with altogether lighter fare for a programme of Summer Classics (including The Lark Ascending), which is conducted by Michael Seal and presented by Andrew Collins.

You can find information on the CBSO’s Summer Classics concert at their website. For more information on composer Julian Anderson, click here – and for more on cellist Alban Gerhardt, visit his website here

On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here