The works featured in this concert, composed in 1912 and 1941, might be considered rather old fare for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, but they remain as startlingly original today as they must have seemed back then. It was a pleasure to hear them in the brand new Elgar Concert Hall at the University of Birmingham in all its shiny, wooden splendour.

Claire Booth © Sven Arnstein
Claire Booth
© Sven Arnstein

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is a selection of 21 out of 50 poems by the Belgian writer Albert Giraud and translated by Otto Erich Hartleben, set to music for a small chamber ensemble. It requires the singer to perform with just the right combination of singing and acting. Claire Booth, a keen advocate of modern repertoire, was on fine form and gave an idiomatic performance which achieved this balance superbly. She seemed to find new inspiration between each of the poems and conveyed the range of contrasting moods of the piece through a whole manner of colours, from whispers to snarls and sardonic laughter, all accompanied by telling facial expressions.

Schoenberg’s inspired scoring was expertly conveyed by the highly attuned players of BCMG, from the silvery moonlight evoked by the flute at the start to the ironic use of high cello writing to imitate the puppet-clown Pierrot’s viola playing as the piece neared its close. Laurence Jackson, leader of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (from which these players are drawn), directed proceedings with calm authority throughout. Booth’s silky take on Sprechgesang (a mode of vocalisation lying somewhere between song and speech) came across particularly clearly, never dominating or being dominated by the other musicians. The hall’s acoustic gave the music the pinpoint clarity it requires while giving ample space and warmth for the sound.

Olivier Messiaen composed his extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps in the most unimaginable circumstances. He had been captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned as a prisoner of war. He managed to obtain paper and pencil from a guard and gradually developed various sketches composed for instrumentalists who were fellow prisoners (a clarinettist, cellist and violinist). With the composer as pianist, the piece was premièred in the prison camp before an audience of fellow prisoners and guards.

This performance in Birmingham was given under rather more genial circumstances but it was nevertheless profoundly moving. BCMG’s Artistic Director Stephen Newbould announced that the performance was being dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Harvey, who sadly died earlier in the week. BCMG has performed a number of his works over their 25-year history.

Messiaen was a devout Catholic and this, like many of his works, is deeply religious in its inspiration. Its “vision of eternity” gives listeners a clue as to how the composer managed to get through his imprisonment. He was particularly inspired by the following passage from the Revelation of St John:

I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clothed in a cloud and having a rainbow on his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He put his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the land, and, holding himself upon the sea and the land, he raised a hand towards heaven and swore by Him who lives forever, saying: “There shall be no more Time; but on the day of the seventh angel’s trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled.”

The eight programmatic movements allow the listener, religious or not, to experience Messiaen’s vision of the end of time.

The quartet gives plenty of opportunities for the instrumentalists as soloists. The third, for instance, is scored for clarinet alone. Timothy Lines was the outstanding clarinettist here, producing almost imperceptible soft notes that would crescendo into shrieks, punctuating his poignant soliloquy. Lines seemed to play both his instrument and the hall’s wonderfully responsive acoustic. In the fourth and eighth movements the piano chords provided gentle heartbeats whilst the cello and violin, respectively, sung their aching melodies. If Ulrich Heinen’s heartfelt cello contribution sounded occasionally strained it seemed in keeping with the spirit of the music. Laurence Jackson’s playing in the final movement, at once fragile-sounding yet absolutely secure, sang sweetly even in the high register. As his final harmonic died away to nothing, you could have heard a pin drop in the hall.