When contemporary means more than wacky

<i>Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Rattle</i> | Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Something old, something new, something wacky: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group brought a typically mixed bag on Tuesday to launch its first European tour. Formed 13 years ago as an offshoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, like its fellow groups from the Ensemble Moderne to the London Sinfonietta, is more a museum of the 20th century than anything strictly contemporary. But it has a style of its own, warmer in tone and less abrasive than groups that sprang up in the century's modernist heyday, and a very English approach to commissioning new pieces.

Something old, something new, something wacky: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group brought a typically mixed bag on Tuesday to launch its first European tour. Formed 13 years ago as an offshoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, like its fellow groups from the Ensemble Moderne to the London Sinfonietta, is more a museum of the 20th century than anything strictly contemporary. But it has a style of its own, warmer in tone and less abrasive than groups that sprang up in the century's modernist heyday, and a very English approach to commissioning new pieces.

Sir Simon Rattle, returning to his old stamping-ground, put the wacky bit at the front. This was the UK premiere of a Symphony for Small Orchestra written nearly 80 years ago by Hans Krasa, better known for his children's opera Brundibar and for having been terminated in a Nazi camp. It's a youthful, colourful muddle of two instrumental pieces and a song. Harmonies veer in and out of focus, like a postmodern synthesis ahead of its time. Schoenberg once wrote a score for an imaginary film; with its quick-fire changes of pace, this could be music for an imaginary Bugs Bunny cartoon, until it ends with a disconcerting Rimbaud poem about child sensuality, which Cynthia Clarey sang with professional commitment.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard arrived for a performance of Ligeti's Piano Concerto in which everybody seemed to burst with confidence about what was going on - a rarer phenomenon than you'd like. Under Rattle, the music had as much precision as a Boulez performance, and an extra degree of emphatic relish. So strongly characterised were the colliding layers of rhythm that it was unusually easy to follow their progress around the orchestra. A powerful shrill climax grew single-mindedly as the unlikely array of wind instruments, from ocarinas to slide whistles, each played the theme their own way.

Colin Matthews' new work was part-funded by BCMG's Sound Investment scheme: members of the public can pay into the fund and pretend to be shareholders. If they really were shareholders, they'd have a say in the choice of composers, but let that pass, since 45 of them coughed up for Continuum. That gave them about one minute each.

The music is a fluent, intricately worked fusion of song cycle and symphony. Two poems from the 1920s by Eugenio Montale dominate its moods: spring set against autumn, renewal against dissolution. Untypically, Matthews seems to have misjudged the start: you can't hear the internal pulse, and the singer's dramatic entry is swamped by high-pitched sounds. The voice soon floats clear in a supple and long-breathed line - quite a plain one, though, and the ear is constantly drawn back to the instrumental fomentation which is the music's source of energy.

Midway, and again towards the end, the instruments take over with bursts of relentless, machine-like activity and a sombre climax. Cynthia Clarey sang with concentration, lyrical ease, and as much passion as the music permitted. But it's a well-behaved score, strangely elusive in its mix of two poets (Rilke is the other) and three languages, and shunning extremes of expression on its way to a grimly resolute end as the words juggle despair with hope.

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