In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: 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)

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 – Param Vir: Wheeling Past the Stars (NMC Recordings)


cPatricia Auchterlonie (soprano); cUlrich Heinen (cello); aSoumik Datta (sarod), aKlangforum Wien / Enno Poppe; bLondon Chamber Orchestra / Odaline de la Martínez dSchönberg Ensemble / Micha Hamel

Param Vir

Raga Fields (2014)a
Before Krishna (1987)b
Wheeling Past the Stars (2007)c
Hayagriva (2005)d

NMC Recordings NMC D265 [69’07”] 

Producers aFlorian Rosensteiner, bStephen Plaistow, cDavid Lefeber, dAnneke van Dulken, dWim Laman
Engineers aFritz Trondel, dDick Lucas

Recorded b14 December 1988 at BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London; d13 December 2005 at Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam; a23 May at Konzerthaus, Vienna; c10 October 2020 at Henry Wood Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Not a little surprisingly, this release from NMC is the first devoted to Param Vir (b1952), his music a welcome though undervalued presence in the UK over the almost four decades since relocating here from his native India and making for a ‘portrait’ whose appearance is timely.

What’s the music like?

Right from his earliest pieces written in the UK, Vir possessed a distinctive and engaging idiom – as can be heard in Before Krishna, subtitled an ‘Overture for Strings’, in which the narrative leading up to the deity’s birth is evoked through an intensive development of the ‘Krishna row’; heard in the context of string writing as is audibly influenced by (if never beholden to) the sonorist techniques from previous decades. Especially striking are those deftly enveloping chordal harmonics into which the music diffuses during the final bars.

Hayagriva is demonstrably more personal in approach – not least in its evoking the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy gradually moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a closing section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety and expressive nuance from emerging. The colour sequence ‘red/crimson-green/gold-blue’ evolves in parallel, but the aural trajectory pursued by this ‘mixed ensemble of 15 players’ is appreciably more subtle.

The song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars draws on four poems by Rabindranath Tagore (sung in widely praised translations by William Radice). ‘Unending Love’ opens the sequence with its ecstatic vocal melisma and cello glissandi, while ‘Palm-tree’ portrays night-ride and storm with no mean resourcefulness. The unaffected charm and vivacity of ‘Grandfather’s Holiday’ then provides an admirable foil to ‘New Birth’, its frequently impassioned contemplation of those ‘who come later’ making for an earnest yet always eloquent conclusion to this cycle.

Raga Fields is outwardly a concerto for sarod but one where the orchestral contribution can be perceived as growing out of the soloist – whether in the gradual textural proliferation of ‘Void’; the comparable melodic interplay, notably through a variety of insinuating solos for woodwind, of ‘Tranquil’; then the stealthy rhythmic accumulation of ‘Vibrant’, in which the constant shifting between notated and improvisatory passages is heard at its most intensive. As the coming together of differing concepts, this is a productive and engrossing synthesis.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Vir’s music exhibits its Indian antecedents distinctly yet always subtly. Allied to unforced harmonic clarity and a keen feeling for textural finesse is a sure sense of where each piece is headed formally, such that the considerable emotional intensity never risks becoming turgid or self-indulgent. It helps that these performances are attuned to the work at hand – not least Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen in the song-cycle, or the three ensembles that are heard in the remaining items. Whatever else, Vir has been well served by his performers.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has, in some cases, been remastered to mitigate the considerable time-span between performances, while Paul Conway pens his customary reliable notes. Hopefully, a follow-up release, maybe of Vir’s wide-ranging orchestral output, will not be long in coming.

Listen & Buy


You can get more information on the disc at the NMC website, where you can also purchase the album. For more on Param Vir, you can visit the composer’s website