CLASSICAL MUSIC McBurney premiere / BCMG Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
Thanks to some dogged promotion and the group's sheer zest and quality of delivery, BCMG's concerts are, as conductor Mark Elder commented at the start of Sunday night's, as much "occasions" or "events" ("gigs", one wag aptly piped up). Birmingham audiences have clocked some of the fervour of Sixties exploration and taken it up (at this somewhat acoustically- challenged, Conservatoire-based new venue) with the kind of refreshing enthusiasm one expects to find at the RNCM, the Royal Scottish Academy or Huddersfield.

Last Sunday was spoof night. The BCMG's predictably well-plotted gig launched with two Russian gems. Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No 1 made a delightfully arch, yet subtle, curtain-raiser, with muted trumpet, banjo, double-bass and a trio of languorous saxophones much in evidence. The sleigh-ride of a polka, nagged on by chuntering violin, delighted, while the Foxtrot/Blues - Kurt Weill tinged by crooning guitar and not just a hint of balalaika - was riven with atmosphere.

Elena Firsova's Distance, a 12-minute setting of a Marina Tsvetayeva poem for solo voice and clarinet quintet, is prefaced by a nostalgic introduction of clustering strings that reaches straight for the solar plexus. Shot through with some of the wasteland plaintiveness of her husband Dmitri Smirnov's opera Tiriel, and composed soon after the couple's own self- imposed exile from Russia, it produced (in Susan Bickley's finely enunciated performance) the biggest emotional wrench of the evening - not least when soft clarinet mirrored the singer like some eerie doppelganger, a thin Yeatsian voice in the reeds.

If a deadly seriousness underlies the black pastiche of Weill's Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (kept under a strict neoclassical rein by Elder, but enchanting in the hushed "Polly Lullaby" and ensuing "Tango"), a clutter of earnest - if appealing - ideas seems to have encumbered the sheer naughtiness and fun of Gerard McBurney's "peepshow", Desire. Laid out rather imaginatively as a kind of symphony within a crisp three-part prologue and natty, scherzoid epilogue, with a text delivered with much aplomb (and a meticulous alertness to its tricky rhythms) by Simon Callow - scattily lit amid bric-a-brac, like Faust in his study - Desire is based on a clutch of nine (unrelated) pictures reproduced in a Tate Gallery catalogue, with a variety of poems attached.

It must have been no mean feat to create coherence from such a mishmash, mischievously suggested (a la Mussorgsky) to the composer by the conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Yet McBurney, fired by his own work on pastiche Shostakovich, has produced more than a collage, often scintillating where it magpies from the Sixties avant-garde, like Caliban and Trinculo cavorting in Prospero's costumes.

There were some exquisite moments - John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (the images reproduced on screen), with Callow's cooing falsetto evoking darker Lewis Carroll associations ("Not girls, but ideas of girls"); a witty dialogue (Dali's Lobster-Telephone); some delicate touches of horn and harp - but these were increasingly overshadowed by the more repetitive longueurs of over-dense, melancholy, descant-recorder- topped textures. Excellently delivered though it was, Desire came across, perhaps intentionally, as a rather clogged Vaudeville. The trim three- minute wind-up confirmed how dazzling this amiably cluttered colazione might be, much reduced.

Gerard McBurney's `Desire' is broadcast in Radio 3's `Hear and Now' slot on Friday 14 Feb (St Valentine's Day) at 10pm

Roderic Dunnett

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