MUSIC / And not a heckler in earshot: Jan Smaczny reviews Turnage, Knussen and Bruckner in Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
Feathers may have flown at Covent Garden over Birtwistle and poor Gawain, in Birmingham, however, contemporary music tends to foster happy consensus.

A case in point was the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's weekend-long Knussen and Turnage experience in the Adrian Boult Hall. Paired like that, the names sound as cosy as a firm of provincial solicitors, but their music can wound as well as comfort.

If the audiences did not stretch the capacity of the hall, there was little sense of antagonism towards an event that revealed rather more about the nature of contemporary British music than the fulminations of the pundits.

In company with Turnage, Knussen emerged, especially in the vocal setting Ocean de Terre, as coldly impressive: music to admire rather than love. His instrumental textures in Ocean, as in the more recent Songs without Voices, always fascinate, drawing the ear down unexpected paths.

Set in stark juxtaposition to the graphic appeal of Turnage's Greek Suite and the cello concerto, Kai, Knussen's sophisticated palette can seem strangely pallid. Comparisons can be misleading, but Turnage's remarkable ear and technique never get in the way of the presentation of ideas. The gem of the weekend's more conventional evenings was music from Turnage's opera, Greek, in a passionate performance by Fiona Kimm and Quentin Hayes superbly directed by Knussen.

Still more illuminating was Saturday's concert given by the Creative Jazz Orchestra under Mike Gibbs. The conductor's experimental treatment of Turnage's Her Anxiety and Release went straight to the heart of the composer's debt to jazz. Indeed, Turnage's fascination with the jazz idiom came over far more clearly than in Gibbs's own, gently romantic To Lady Mac: In Memory. Better still was the performance itself: this is a group that feels the lines rather than counting the bars.

BCMG was out again the following week with the premiere of Sonata da caccia for harpsichord, oboe and horn by Thomas Ades - a combination Debussy once hoped to exploit - commissioned by BBC Pebble Mill.

This work must have been balm to the souls of the anti- modernists. Beginning with a flurry of Couperinesque figures, the piece groped its way towards a more individual profile via clear, tonal gestures and a somewhat irritating 'Bach goes to townish' episode. But, pace the polemicists, a little irritation is a small price to pay for variety.

Comparison was in the air again with the arrival of the Leipzig Gewandhaus's performance of Bruckner's Seventh in Symphony Hall on Saturday. The CBSO had performed the same piece a couple of days before, and, in a reciprocal visit celebrating the links between Birmingham and Leipzig, will shortly take it to Leipzig.

The Gewandhaus orchestra, of course, has this music in its bones and, however much Kurt Masur pulled around the tempos, neither performers nor conductor lost sight of the span of the whole.

Rattle and the CBSO had projected a completely different view. Caressing every phrase in their best Mahlerian manner, the detail was a delight, but a clear outline refused to materialise.

Their Bruckner may not satisfy the Germans, but their electrifying performance of Tippett's Fourth can only do good things for international relations.