Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Wigmore Hall, London
Psappha, Kings Place, London
Takacs Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Poetry by a painter, foxtrots on the harpsichord – music is turned topsy-turvy by a radical ensemble
Sunday 31 January 2010
How angry were the Angry Young Men of the Manchester School? Think of industrial Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the grainy resentments of kitchen-sink dramas spring to mind.
To the casual listener, the rabbit-punch chords and fractured melodies of early Birtwistle, Goehr and Maxwell Davies might well belong to that pugnacious, donkey-jacketed world. Yet there were glimpses of green and pleasant land among the dark Satanic mills, colours plundered from Stravinsky, lyrics from da Vinci.
Ostensibly a celebration of Luke Bedford's appointment as composer-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's programme of works by Bedford, Helen Grime, Maxwell Davies, Goehr and Birtwistle was a survey of music written at the point when a composer's voice is just beginning to resonate. Though the Manchester composers are now Grand Old Men, each was younger than Bedford (born 1978) or Grime (born 1981) when they wrote the works performed here.
For good or ill, anger has fallen out of fashion. Commissioned by BCMG and tailored to their warm sound, Grime's A Cold Spring (2008) is confident, direct and lyrical: effective in its use of unvoiced breath, thematically assured, with a dancing duet for two clarinets and a looping, coltish solo for horn. Bedford's syntactically unnerving Good Dream She Has (2008) centres on the timelessness described in Glyn Maxwell's Milton-inspired text: low woodwind washed gently over a pulsing pedal note for tuned percussion, with Claire Booth as Eve to Christopher Gillett's Adam, Hilary Summers as One Creature, and each entry minutely syncopated. Even under conductor Oliver Knussen's careful beat, the effect was smudgy, sophorific, generically "atmospheric".
Of the older works, Birtwistle's rebarbative aubade, The World is Discovered (1960) is the least dated, pitching in turn a sleepy flute, yawning clarinet and combative oboe against a garrulous dawn chorus of mixed woodwind, brass, double basses, guitar and harp. The toccatas and madrigals of Monteverdi creep in to Maxwell Davies's magpie Leopardi Fragments (1961), set stratospherically for soprano and duskily for contralto, its final a capella duet splintering the word "acerba" ("bitter") into its syllables. Goehr's breakthrough cantata, The Deluge (1958) is more anxious to display its academic sophistication and scored to afford equal discomfort for singers and listeners. The text is drawn from Sergei Eisenstein's translation of notes made by Leonardo for a painting of Noah's Flood – jottings of such gnawing, apocalyptic horror that they might have been taken from a nightmare. Had John Osborne's furious character, Jimmy Porter, been a composer, this would be the kind of work he might have produced.
There was more Peter Maxwell Davies at Kings Place, where the group Psappha marked the composer's 75th birthday. A bizarre collage of flappers' foxtrots and Restoration grounds anachronistically scored for bass clarinet, violin, cello, piccolo, marimba and harpsichord, Purcell: Fantasia and 2 Pavans (1968) was the bird-scarer, while Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), sung and acted by Kelvin Thomas, was the juicy worm. The breaking of the violin (a cheap facsimile) has acquired Spinal Tap silliness over the years, and the didgeridoo Handel is a parody too far, but this piece has all the punch and poignancy of Alan Bennett's version of George III's insanity a generation later. With the musicians in bird masks and Thomas in straitjacket and velvet breeches, the horror, pity and humour of the king's situation was vividly drawn in falsetto shrieks, gutteral moans, twisted minuets and mocking birdsong. A fearless performance with impact – not that there can be any other kind.
The temptation to study a composer's work in chronological order is always strong. Yet, as the Takacs Quartet have proved in their Beethoven cycle, programming one work from the early, middle and late periods in each concert can be a useful corrective to treating music like chapters in a biography. Fourth in a series that concludes in May, last Wednesday's programme spanned 25 years in Beethoven's life but defied glib categorisation. Listen to the apparent simplicity of the Andante of the D-major Quartet (Opus 18, No 3), and the way in which it is gradually elevated and ennobled and you can hear Fidelio. Listen to the Adagio of the second Razumovsky Quartet (Opus 59) and in addition to Kant's "starry heavens" there is a germ of the Ninth Symphony.
Played, as here, by four musicians who have learnt to work with each others' foibles, who bend to accommodate and support, you stop hearing the performance and simply hear the music. And when that music is the Opus 127 quartet, with its astonishing harmonic boldness, its numinous or caustic variations and its blistered resolve, all else falls away.
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