MUSIC Ghetto blasters and city slickers

Towards the Millenium Birmingham
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CBSO's second foray into the 1940s looked on the "dark side" of the decade with works rooted in the Second World War. Schoenberg's melodrama, A Survivor from Warsaw, is an appallingly vivid portrayal of the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, brutal in impact and more powerful than most film scores. The men of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Wiener Singakademie gave a passionate reading of the concluding "Hear, O Israel"; Benjamin Luxon was a rivetingly dramatic narrator.

Set against so uncompromising a vision, the Czech composer Pavel Haas's Study for Strings came over as an oasis of lyricism. Though written in the "paradise ghetto" of Terezin, whence Haas was transported to his death in Auschwitz, the Study is blithely abstract, strangely shaped and rich in good humour. There is more than a hint of Haas's teacher Janacek, alongside references to Dvorak's Requiem, as well as, more interestingly, a clear affinity, in the sprung rhythms and exultant tonality of the conclusion, with Tippett's Double String Concerto - a curious crossing of inspiration between men who surely knew nothing of each other.

Tippett himself was represented by a broad performance of A Child of Our Time. Meditative rather than dramatic, Simon Rattle's handling of the structure allowed the pivotally placed spirituals their full impact. The down side came in the more rapid numbers, where the chorus failed to move with a flexibility adequate to the depiction of terror.

On Sunday, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also turned its attention to the Forties with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Stravinsky's Mass. In between came the premiere of Judith Weir's Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, a 13-minute concerto for 10 instruments. The title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem rich in images of the music around us; and Weir's inspiration derives from an Ivesian desire to capture the sounds of a city - or, in her case, SE17.

The musical frame - a catchy, frequently shifting ostinato - also had an American tinge. If the harmony hardly seemed to have stirred from the 1940s of Stravinsky's Mass, blasts of invigorating instrumental sounds and easily apprehended melody combined to produce a popular success. Given the apparent richness of source material from which the work sprang, however, it didn't seem to offer a great deal of variety.

Jan Smaczny