The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has long made an essential contribution to our musical life, keeping alive the flame of new music through commissions, premières, and expert performance of challenging recent scores. This concert displayed all three characteristics along with a fourth – intelligent and coherent programming. The first three of the six programmed works were written for the 80th birthday of William Glock, a former Controller of Music at the BBC and a champion of new works. That fell in 1984 when Helen Grime, composer of two of the other pieces, was aged three. But her new piano concerto, a BCMG co-commission, is she says, a sort of mini-homage to Carter and Boulez. Carter’s Triple Duo, which closed the programme, is a particular favourite of Grimes' and her Cold Spring from 2009, another BCMG commission, also features instrumental duets. These resonances of celebration, homage and musical echoes across the evening added considerably to its appeal. Perhaps too the passing last year of both Boulez and Maxwell Davies increased the sense of homage.

Helen Grime © Amy Barton
Helen Grime
© Amy Barton

Carter’s Canon for 4 – Homage to William made a beguiling overture, setting the scene with its technical demands and formal constraint – the composer himself pointed out the strictness of its four part canonic techniques – somehow resulting in a liberated sense of fun. The celebrations continued with Boulez’s marvellous Dérive 1, its shimmering opening casting an instant spell, unbroken through to its slow processional close six minutes or so later. Maxwell Davies’ Unbroken Circle, the shortest item, was perhaps the only piece which explored just a single mood, its slow contrapuntal unfolding leaving out the percussion from the ensemble, and deploying piano, lower winds (alto flute and bass clarinet) and strings (viola and cello).

It must be said that Helen Grime’s Piano Concerto – its world premiere – was not outclassed in this company. Cast in three movements using related material and playing for around twelve minutes, it is in essence almost as much a piece of chamber music as the works that preceded it, and as befitted the venue. Huw Watkins was the soloist, and was given the expected element of display, which he dispatched with an ease perhaps born of early acquaintance with the solo part as it developed (he is the husband of the composer). But in a work like this everyone needs to be a virtuoso, at least at times, and the BCMG players sounded as if they had been playing this brand new music all their lives. The scoring is for two duos - flute and clarinet (both initially offstage), violin and cello, and harp and percussion. Each pairing is given independent and contrasting themes which at certain points collide, rather than blend. The percussion and harp play largely in collaboration with the soloist, (in homage to Boulez’s sur Incises apparently). This provided a bracing density of musical incident that demanded and rewarded alert listening, and the work and its composer were warmly, even enthusiastically greeted at the end.

After the interval there was more from Helen Grime, this time her Cold Spring, also in three short sections, and also imbued with the spirit of the concerto. Indeed the middle movement is described by Grime as a mini concerto for the solo horn, and BCMG horn player Mark Phillips evidently enjoyed it. But the concertante element was there too in an exuberant duet for the clarinets in the first part, and the flying sequence of juxtaposed solos and duets in the last part. It felt like a condensed concerto for orchestra, or rather a sort of ‘Concertino for Chamber Group’. The title Cold Spring was not explained, but the piece was commissioned for the Aldeburgh Festival, so perhaps there was a sly reference to the climate of the Suffolk coast.

Carter’s Triple Duo was commissioned for a US tour of the Peter Maxwell Davies’ group The Fires of London, and the origin of the idea of writing for instruments in duos which confront each other, and so made a fitting climax. It’s a substantial piece of about twenty minutes, and a work whose playful mood appears in its very opening, where the players are caught in the act of warming up before beginning. The pairs are of winds, strings and percussion – a pianist and a single player with a whole battery of crotales, temple blocks, marimba, glockenspiel, cymbal and drums. Far from being an indulgence, these are the instruments used most sparingly, but always to telling coloristic and structural effect. In Paul Griffith’s excellent and detailed programme note we learned that on that US tour it was given without a conductor – which seems extraordinary. Knussen’s unobtrusive mastery of these intricate scores is easily taken for granted (he conducted that 1984 première of the Boulez, after all), but should not be. Composers, players and audience were all in some of the most expert and sympathetic hands in the contemporary music world.