The Barbican’s honouring of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday continued on Sunday night, as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group paid a visit to Milton Court. BCMG celebrated their 25th birthday last year, and on the basis of last night’s performance continue to go from strength to strength. The primal starkness of Birtwistle’s work, however, took its toll over the evening, even with BCMG’s taut vigour.

Oliver Knussen © Mark Allan | BBC
Oliver Knussen
© Mark Allan | BBC

Cantus Iambus, the evening’s opener, was written as a dramatic overture for the Nash Ensemble in 2004. Though barely distinguishable as being based on the iambic rhythm, its sense of motion was maintained with ferocity, with interjections giving a sense of groping in the dark. We emerged into stillness, but tension remained, even as the music faded to nothing.

Tragoedia is meant as a theatrical-sounding piece in the Greek tradition, and BCMG maintained the sense of story from the declamatory prologue to the exodus. We had conflict between strings and woodwinds, particularly the cello and horn, although the latter seemed to struggle when not called upon to embrace an ugliness of sound. We moved from combat to menacing stillness and back to combat, gaining in intensity before ending with sad strings and faltering percussion.

The theme of growth from stillness to motion and back again continued in Fantasia on all the Notes, Birtwistle’s homage to Purcell and the most recent of the works performed. There was a primeval feel to the performance, as combinations of instruments grouped and regrouped, growing into something more urgent, even brutal in places, before descending into nothingness.

Katrien Baerts © Claudia Hansen
Katrien Baerts
© Claudia Hansen

Soprano Katrin Baerts joined BCMG for Cantata, Monody for Corpus Christi and Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski. Cantata is a early work, written during his involvement with the Pierrot Players and incorporates a verse-refrain form into a sophisticated design. Each recurrence of the motif was crystal clear, highlighted by the most delicate of the delicate conducting Knussen exhibited throughout the evening. The audience responded in equally delicate fashion, and there was an awed hush in all the pauses.

We moved even further back in time for Monody for Corpus Christi, his Opus 2. It takes very familiar texts; the Corpus Christi carol and the Wedderburn brothers’ "O my deare heart", better known to most as “Balulalow” from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with an instrumental interlude separating the two. You could sense the young Birtwistle searching for his own individual language in this early work - ideas were there, but not fully developed. The choice of texts was curious too; there was no sense of devotion or parental love in their realisation.

The Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski were the most atmospheric of the vocal pieces. Starting with a minimal low accompaniment to contrast with Baerts, again the music grew to take in the full ensemble before dissipating. These were choice morsels of song, to be quickly savoured before the vanished back into the ether.

Baerts was both brilliant and frustrating to hear. Possessing a beautiful voice with the ability to navigate extremely complex sweeping vocal lines, at times Baerts forgot to engage with the audience and, thus, her own voice. This was most evident in her lower register; her upper register however, when fully opened up, was utterly magnificent.

The highlight of the evening was without doubt the final piece, Silbury Air, so named for Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. Starting from one note, it grew first rhythmically before spreading out across the full ensemble of strings, brass, wind and percussion. Knussen was at his most animated here, and he needed to be, expertly handling complex layering of rhythms. BCMG managed to make this process feel completely organic, building up and receding twice while invoking primal dances, raw spirituality and breathless energy.

The final concert in the Barbican’s celebration of Birtwistle places his works in context alongside other British composers. This would have been a useful approach here, throwing Birtwistle’s chamber pieces into relief. As it was, the evening had a slightly relentless feel, in spite of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s excellent performances. As a regular visitor to the second city, it is to my shame that this was the first time I had seen them in action. I’ll be seeking them out on my next trip.

***11