The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 27th February 2015.
There were champagne glasses out at CBSO Centre on Friday night: and rightly. This was the first Birmingham outing for Gerald Barry’s new setting of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar – the 75th commission, since 1991, in BCMG’s Sound Investment scheme.
Other than that, this was a very BCMG kind of celebration: no frills, just a thought-provoking and beautifully-curated programme played straight and to the highest imaginable standard. The programme was built around the songs that John Woolrich has commissioned from over 200 composers since the late 80s. Each was scored for soprano (Gillian Keith and Rebecca von Lipinski took turns), plus solo strings and two clarinets. Conductor Jonathan Berman provided such guidance as was necessary.
The format made for illuminating contrasts. Certain mannerisms recurred – icy harmonics, juddering sul ponticello tremolandi – but more striking was the way the small form intensified each composer’s individuality. The wiry tangle of Milton Babbitt’s Quatrains sat between the Barry – a typically deadpan bit of Barry provocation, the text chanted in an aggressive monotone by Lipinski, and then sung over clangourous piano chords – and a delicious nonsense scherzo by the late Jonathan Harvey, playfully and affectionately thrown off by Keith.
Thomas Adès’ fidgety, overwritten early Life Story hasn’t worn well; Osvaldo Golijov’s Sarajevo, on the other hand, sounded just as rich and strange as it must have done in 1993. Lipinkski’s warmly responsive singing conjured up the ghost of Mahler in (of all writers) a Flann O’Brien setting by Kurt Schwertsik; Berg haunted Keith’s performance of Detlev Glanert’s Contemplated by a Portrait of a Divine.
But the fragility and poise of Gillian Keith’s voice in three Celan songs by Harrison Birtwistle gave the evening its centre of gravity. Birtwistle’s measured phrases and resonant silences connected with the poetry on what felt like a subconscious level. Again: no frills, just loving, perfectly-judged performances of music that has eloquence to spare.