Birmingham Contemporary Music Group * * * *
at the CBSO Centre
Review by Christopher Morley
Premieres are hard enough to come by, but most composers these days will tell you that second performances are even more difficult to achieve.
Which is yet another reason why Birmingham Contemporary Music Group more than deserves the accolades it receives: not only does it assiduously promote commissions, it also gives repeat hearings, and we heard two of these during Sunday's concert crammed with the riches we confidently expect from every BCMG event.
There was a new "Sound Investment" commission, Johannes Maria Staud's fastidiously scored One Movement and Five Miniatures. Built around a solo harpsichord (its sometimes puny sounds mixed and replayed by adept electronics animateurs Jonathan Green and Simon Hall), it communicates with a neo-classical clarity and a seamless elegance of structure.
Edward Rushton's Palace, a "Sound Investment" commission originally heard in 2001, is to all intents and purposes a symphony, its structural scenario well-imagined, its sturdy scoring confidently delivered by the BCMG under the assured conducting of Richard Baker.
Yet for me its endless circling of pianists, sometimes two, sometimes three, preying upon the keyboard seemed gimmicky, and I found my interest floating away during its substantial length.
Benedict Mason's Nodding Trilliums and Curved-Lined Angles made a far more welcome return after its 1990 premiere.
This is jolly, jaunty stuff, giving wonderfully theatrical opportunities to a quartet of percussionists on all kinds of weird and wonderful instruments, and generally taking the mickey out of the pretentiousness of self-perceived "high art". Bring more of this on.
And that is indeed what happened with Mysteries of the Macabre, Elgar Howarth's arrangement of material from Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre. Soprano Barbara Hannigan was simply amazing in the dramatic coloratura of the Chief of Police, her agile tones flickering from register to register, her jaw delivering the vicious text with machine gun-like accuracy.
Her outfit (fishnet tights, boots and leather coat) was stunning, too, and Baker and his players responded with enthusiasm.
Hannigan was also the exemplary soloist in vocal miniatures by Webern, masterpieces of the highest order which it was perhaps unfair to set in this aspirational context.
* Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.