Last weekend in Birmingham and Oxford, BCMG unveiled its latest Sound Investment commission - Last Round, by the Argentinian-born Osvaldo Golijov. Like Stefan Asbury, the group's capable and increasingly well-focused young conductor, Golijov received encouragement from Oliver Knussen at Tanglewood and elsewhere; he looks to be a voice to be reckoned with. Last Round is conceived as a tribute - with a difference - to the great Argentinian bandoneon (or keyboardless accordion) performer and composer Astor Piazzolla - the "last great exponent of the tango", who died five years ago, and whose stylised live performances Golijov remembers witnessing as a boy: an unforgettable experience that did as much as anything to startle him into the composing urge.
The resulting piece - a nonet - is, like the tango itself, a glorious hybrid: creating something new out of the "spirit" of the tango so as to provide (as the composer puts it), "an imaginary chance for Piazzolla's spirit to play one more time". Two string quartets face each other, adopting the attitudinised stance of the traditional bandoneon player, around a focal double-bass, and embark, after a vigorous opening with rhythmic patterns set by the bass, on a kind of two-movement Concerto Grosso. The groups almost duel at times in the first, their overt energy and urgency fuelled by downward-striving broken octaves and brazenly pumped-out patterns that acquire here a Reichian, latterly a distinctly folk-like, tinge.
But the heart of the piece is in what follows: an extended and unusual slow movement, both celebration and lament, in which a sense of the sinuous pulse of a slow tango is somehow embedded in warm textures that seem to expand and contract, teetering between the lucidity of a late Beethoven quartet and a lush, almost slushy Metamorphosen-like late Romanticism. highly apt for the undisguisedly sentimental 1930s song "My Beloved Buenos Aires", on whose refrain it is based. The nostalgia is tangible, though Golijov's unashamed sentiment never gets to be cloying or mawkish a la Bryars. James MacMillan, equally, has sought to evoke in theatre and instrumental works, both cerebrally and viscerally, something of Argentina's contradictory past; Golijov is someone who owns it in his blood.
Oxford's welcoming new Jacqueline du Pre Building proved not just an ideal, compact setting and acoustic for this imaginatively programmed, revealing concert, but a clear boon to Oxford's still underacknowledged, but first-class Contemporary Music Festival, now one of the major events in the calendar, which has given the dreaming spires a much-needed musical shot in the arm. It spans several weekends, and can still be caught this week and next n
Festival continues to 16 Nov. Booking and info: 01865 261384 / 798600