As far as ambition goes, you couldn’t fault Sian Edwards and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in their programming choices for this afternoon’s Proms performance at Wilton’s Music Hall. Drawing together works from the 18th century to the contemporary era, the concert was organised around two not completely complementary themes: madness and birds. Essentially, the ensemble used a number of eclectic chamber pieces to create a kind of extended prelude to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ disturbing monodrama about the mental dissolution of King George III, Eight Songs for a Mad King. Supposedly the deranged monarch attempted to teach caged birds to sing, hence the ornithological bent of the opening works.

Sian Edwards conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group © BBC | Mark Allan
Sian Edwards conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
© BBC | Mark Allan

Baritone Marcus Farnsworth was on-stage for the entire performance, bathed in blue light and strait-jacketed during the opening pieces, making the odd anxiety-wracked twitch or squirm to denote his character’s mental disquiet. This suggested that the chamber music and the climactic monodrama were to be taken as one continuous narrative, blurring the lines between a chamber performance and experimental theatre. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group should be commended for this desire to experiment with form, and their musical discipline in this challenging music was near-faultless. These achievements outstrip any of the awkwardness in the realisation of the concept. 

From the very beginning, the ensemble made a concerted effort to utilise the space to its potential. From the right-hand balcony, percussionists Julian Warburton and Steve Gibson punctured the pregnant silences between the fluttering wind lines in the opening excerpt from John Luther Adams’ songbirdsongs with duelling rolls of high-pitched drums. Excerpts from the piece were laced throughout the performance, placing us firmly in a soundworld of chirruping winds and flickering percussion. We moved to Messiaen’s Le Merle noir, performed by a flute/piano duo to the left of the stage. Mark Knoop’s interpretation of the composer’s pointillistic piano writing, with its skittering high parts and plodding, abrupt low parts, was nuanced and dextrous, and the untethered tonality and scatty rhythmic logic of the piece helped nudge us further into the realms of distorted perception.

Jennifer France and Tom McKinney perform <i>Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom O'Bedlam</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Jennifer France and Tom McKinney perform Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom O'Bedlam
© BBC | Mark Allan

The ensemble’s interpretation of the folk song “Mad Maudlin” (also known as “Boys of Bedlam”), a favourite of revivalists from Martin Carthy to Steeleye Span, was another interesting idea which felt a little awkward in practice. Soprano Jennifer France’s vocal performance, though certainly impressive in its range and power, was a little histrionic: the words to the song are lurid enough without adding extra theatricality. Much more successful was the treatment of Handel’s “Augelletti, che cantate” – a moment of near-calm in a programme dominated by seething confusion. Here, the solo wind interjections were given even more license to swoop and slide as they are in more conventional and straight-laced performances of the piece. The trio performance of Saunders’ Molly’s Song 3 was notable for its intensity and focus, with Tom McKinney putting some visceral attack into the guitar’s percussive writing.

Marcus Farnsworth performs <i>Eight Songs for a Mad King</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Marcus Farnsworth performs Eight Songs for a Mad King
© BBC | Mark Allan

With the full ensemble onstage, we were then plunged into the disorienting world of Davies’ monodrama. As elsewhere in the concert, the instrumentalists were precise and exacting in their parts – the carefully-timed opening salvo in the percussion almost made me jump out of my skin. Farnsworth did the demanding vocal writing of the piece justice, and showed with his uninhibited movements that he is a capable actor as well. The harrowing closing passages of the work, in which the mad king is harried off the stage by a percussionist who whips a bass drum, was given an added layer of menace by his deep, resonant wail.

Even today, Davies’ Eight Songs poses uncomfortable questions about the presentation of mental illness in art. Is this entertainment? The afternoon's venue – the world's oldest surviving music hall – made this tension even more stated. As a concept, I’m not sure the BCMG’s programme held completely together. But their disciplined and detailed approach to the challenging instrumental writing, coupled with Farnsworth’s uninhibited performance, meant that the concert could be much appreciated when taken at face value: as an intense exposition of high weirdness.