Music:Or words to that effect

Music for a While Birmingham Town Hall
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The Independent Culture
No doubt the City of London Sinfonia has done good things. But, launching Radio 3's Music for a While series of Purcell and Tippett anniversary performances and premieres in Birmingham Town Hall on the first Monday of 1995, inspiration seemed to h ave fled: entries were scrappy and the string sound was thin, with very little definition in the phrasing. It's quite a triumph to make Tippett's Double Concerto sound earthbound, but Richard Hickox's rendition of this vital work had about as much propul sive dynamism as an M6 tailback. The Sinfonia Singers' way with Purcell anthems was no better, with uncertain beginnings and raw tone.

Perhaps rehearsal time had been lavished on the premiere. John Woolrich's Another Staircase Overture began with relays of rising scales, presumably chasing each other up the stairs, in a witty dual tribute to Tippett and Purcell. This joyous invention soon gave way to more introspective gestures in what proved an over-extended canvas. Purcell quotations came and went, most of them seeming to act as a prop rather than a spur to Woolrich's imagination.

The next two concerts had much more solid foundations. Last Wednesday, Peter Donohoe turned in two stunningly intense performances of Tippett's second and third piano sonatas, surrounded by some of Purcell's best theatre music from Trevor Pinnock and theEnglish Concert playing with gleeful stylistic panache. Michael Berkeley's Dark Sleep, a meditation on Dido's Lament, was a well thought-out and satisfying premiere. According to Berkeley, the inspiration owes as much to Dylan Thomas's "Rage agai nst the dying of the light" as to the Carthaginian Queen's elegant despair. The result is dense, at times aggressive, and perhaps shorter than it might have been. The inevitable quote from Purcell's opera was exquisitely handled as an understated cadenza , allthe more meaningful for its fleeting quality.

Sally Beamish's in dreaming for tenor and viols, premiered on Monday, was similarly approachable. Strongly linear in outline with a wealth of rhythmic interest, it was also a contemporary composers' compendium of how to get the best out of these old instruments. Joined by Martyn Hill, Fretwork gave an assured performance of the work in tune with its passionate playing of a clutch of Purcell string fantasies.

But why was diction so poor? With everyone waxing lyrical about Purcell and Tippett's word-setting, you'd have thought clear delivery would be a priority, but even "Fairest isle" itself came over as an exquisite succession of vowels, barely disturbed by an audible consonant. Of course, in Purcell the sheer loveliness of the vocal line has its own consolations; Tippett presents a different challenge. On Monday, Martyn Hill's eloquent performance of Boyhood's End raised high hopes. Sadly, the se were dashed in The Heart's Assurance, a battle between an astonishingly dense piano texture and the voice. If the tenor wins, these songs can appear some of the finest of the century - if he loses, it's an unrewarding mush. Hill's performance gave pre cious little sign of the true nature of Tippett's genius.

n The second concert, including Berkeley's `Dark Sleep', is broadcast on R3 at 7.30pm on Monday. Final concerts, including premieres by Finnissy and Hoyland: 15 Jan Birmingham Town Hall; 23 Jan Studio 1, Pebble Mill