Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Barbican, London<br></br>Quatuor Mosaïques, Wigmore Hall, London

The trials of being a cellist
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The Independent Culture

Concerts of new (or, in the case of Julian Anderson's Alhambra Fantasy and Huw Watkins's Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments, nearly new) music almost always pull the listener's focus away from the performance and towards the composition. But for most of their annual Barbican performance, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's sense of communication, rhythmic bite, and sheer clarity of sound came first. So what if their line-up of new works seemed a little safe, a little predictable, even? This was no pedagogical exercise. It was music for pleasure, pleasurably performed.

Anderson's tripartite Alhambra Fantasy started with firework brilliance; spitting out flashes of Stravinskian colour before scurrying into a Tippet-like string motif and then subsiding into humid post-modern murk. Watkins's beautiful, if slightly reactionary, French-accented sonata drew more intensity from the players, though soloist Ulrich Heinen's reserved cello playing was outshone by his accompanists' glowing tones, and conductor Peter Rundel's oddly swingy beat seemed to hinder rather than aid a sense of felt, shared rhythm. Indeed throughout the concert Rundel seemed happier speeding than steering, and only in Gerald Barry's Dead March – the title of which gives no sense of its balletic energy – was his direction truly helpful.

If the first half of BCMG's concert conjured images of Paris – of Stravinsky, Les Six, and, in the case of Dead March, a game of musical chairs choreographed by Diaghilev – the second half was pure New York. Almost. Bass Inventions, Mark-Anthony Turnage's quasi-concerto for double-bassist Dave Holland, attempts to translate the steamy funk of extemporised jazz into concert hall language. As with much of his work, the orchestration is punchy and strong, the doubling of instruments quite unique, the layering of textures and effects imaginative, the referencing taut and smart. But for much of this piece the idioms of jazz and classical work next to each other rather than together. Only in the third movement, Meditation (an apparent inversion of When I Fall in Love), does Bass Inventions achieve its own language.

Without doubt, Bass Inventions needed more rehearsal (and this was the day after BCMG's Birmingham date) or at least more explanation, either from Turnage or Rundel. Even Holland was counting – rather than feeling – the beat, and moments of cohesion and expressivity were sadly few from such an excellent group. Had a less anxious conductor been in charge and had the players been seated more closely together, with the soloist at the centre rather than off to the side in his own little jazz-ghetto, this piece would have worked better. It shone in bits – the shimmering double-choir playing of the strings, the overlapping acoustic and electric pianos, the sharp snicker of percussion – but was unconvincing as a whole.

Similar problems beset the first of Quatuor Mosaïques' Wigmore Hall concerts. But with no conductor to blame and no music written later than 1796 to contend with, it was hard to see the cause. Fleetingly, one had glimpses of what this group normally sounds like: the hushed glint of tension in the Adagio of Haydn's Quartet in C Major, Op 54 No 2, the deep, dramatic legato of the opening movement of Hyacinthe Jadin's Quartet in E Flat, the whistling edginess of the first and second movements of the Dissonance. But the vast majority of the performance was messy and incoherent.

Poor intonation. Poor ensemble. Poor phrasing. And poor Christopher Coin – the only player immune to whatever was bothering the other three, and the only player to notch up maybe two notes on the wrong side of perfection, as opposed to several hundred of them – for having to play what turned out to be an extremely odd solo cello recital with such inexplicably bad accompaniment.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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