BCMG/MacMillan, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

A sound investment
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The Independent Culture

There is something special about hearing the work of a pupil interpreted by his or her teacher. Perhaps it is the sense of a mentor having a special insight into the music, even having shaped it, which lends the stamp of authority. A similar feeling of authenticity informed James MacMillan's direction of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) in a world premiere by his Royal Scottish Academy pupil Edward Rushton.

The latest fruit of the BCMG's excellent Sound Investment scheme, Palace, is an abstract work in four movements that sounded like a cleverly deconstructed symphony. The opening gestures aped grand symphonic calling cards, but large-scale statements were wittily side-stepped. A song-like theme first heard on the oboe haunted the gently flowing slow movement. The punchy scherzo led seamlessly into the finale, which, in true symphonic fashion, reintroduced earlier material. A chorale-like motif raised ghosts of Bruckner and Mahler's grand perorations, but the throwaway ending was emotionally satisfying for such a good-humoured and vibrant work.

Robert Heard was the sure-footed and lyrical soloist narrator in Sally Beamish's brightly coloured A Book of Seasons, a successful earlier example of the Sound Investment scheme from 1995. The four seasons were graphically represented with shimmering icicles, chattering birds, rasping grasshoppers and crackling hearths brought to life respectively by each section of the BCMG in turn. A delightful mini-violin concerto, A Book of Seasons is a lively, picturesque alternative to Vivaldi's oft-played work.

Two powerful expressions of faith framed the concert. The oppressive rhythms of the central movement of James Macmillan's Three Dawn Rituals of 1983 suggested the relentless mechanical routines of contemporary life, whilst the outer movements conjured up the timelessness of misty ceremonies at daybreak. Chiming vibraphone, gong-like prepared piano and ethereal string harmonics evoked the sounds of Javanese gamelan music.

Schnittke's monumental, meditative Fourth Symphony of 1984, interleafing chants from Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish traditions, cast a spell over the audience. Four soloists from European Voices crowned a reading of controlled and inexorable power. All the players were impressive, but pianist Malcolm Wilson deserves special mention for the poetry as well as the fearless attack of his important cadenza-like contributions. This compelling performance capped an evening's music-making of exceptional quality in an intelligently planned programme.

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