It’s certainly not the sort of songbook that you’d have lying around in your piano stool. British composer John Woolrich’s Songbook project, begun in the late 1980s, had as its goal the reintegration of the song – that most universal of musical forms – into the contemporary composer’s creative repertoire. Sensing a relative lack of engagement in the genre from many of his confrères, Woolrich and soprano Mary Wiegold set about signing up as many composers to the project as possible. Participation was cheap: they got it for a song. Over a decade, the Songbook grew to contain the works of over 200 composers; 18 of the entries in this vast volume of vocal music were performed at Wigmore Hall by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, joined by sopranos Gillian Keith and Rebecca von Lipinski, and for the most part conducted by Jonathan Berman.

There was little prescriptiveness in Woolrich’s call for compositions. Whilst he offered the instrumental combination of two clarinets and lower strings (viola, cello and bass), this was open to negotiation. The songs performed here were evidence of this: a piano or violin added here, a clarinet or bass dropped there. Such variety was also evident in the texts chosen, which ranged from Jonathan Harvey’s nonsense syllables to Niccolò Castiglioni’s setting of Petrach and Kurt Schwerstik’s use of a single sentence from a Flann O’Brien novel. The resulting concert was a fascinating exploration of fourteen compositional voices responding to the Songbook challenge.

The first half featured the more recognisable names on the programme, with songs by Harvey, Babbitt, Adès, Birtwistle and a new commission by Gerald Barry. Pick of the crop for me was Adès’ twinkle-in-the-eye setting of Tennessee Williams’s wittily tragic poem Life Story. Two growling, wheezing bass clarinets were joined by a swooping, sliding double bass in accompanying von Lipinski in this smoky, sensual song that captured the jazzy emptiness of the poem perfectly. Von Lipinski’s commanding power was on show in Barry’s bilingual version of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, in which spoken monotone recitations of the original English poem and a German translation were each followed by a sung repetition, accompanied by steady, hammering piano discords, which somehow made these pitched iterations more monotonous than the spoken ones. Birtwistle’s settings of three poems by German poetic genius Paul Celan had moments of breathtaking beauty, when the obfuscated, rather nondescript instrumental texture dissolved dramatically into a hauntingly rarefied clarity at key poetic phrases. Schwertsik’s trio of songs provided some relief from the favoured declamatory vocal style and dissonance, with lush, post-Romantic harmonic accompaniments to genuine melodies in Human existence... and the pastiche Singt meine Schwäne.

Songs by Neuwirth, Ruders, Golijov, Glanert, Castiglioni, Sciarrino, Clementi (Aldo, not Muzio!) and Donatoni made up the second half. If some (or all) of those names are unknown to you, you’re not alone. Certain amongst them are probably destined to remain so, too, but some will, along with their songs, be etched in my memory. Golijov’s setting of Sephardic song Sarajevo featured stunning contrasts of instrumentation, brimming with intensity before subsiding into clear, high strings and quiet sustained clarinets. But Sciarrino’s Due risvegli e il vento and Clementi’s Wiegenlied stole the show: the former combining the simplest but profoundly affective instrumental effects with extraordinary vocal acrobatics, all performed pianissimo; the latter an utterly transfixing, oddly nerve-jangling song in which a mysterious, finger-tingling texture of very high unison strings maintaining a single note (with occasional individual deviations) and sustained notes with microtonal play in the clarinets underpinned the smoothest, most perfectly reflective vocal surface imaginable.

Performing this miscellany of songs required remarkable flexibility and technical brilliance, and the BCMG players showed they had both in abundance. Gillian Keith managed her often relentlessly high parts well, although at times her voice had a papery thinness to it that was lacking in body. It didn’t help that she was alternating with the undisputed star of the show, the truly sensational Rebecca von Lipinski, whose voice, musicality and stage presence were all supreme. It wasn’t a coincidence that she sang all of the most engaging songs of the evening: her performance was totally riveting.

This concert was not without its problems, however. The substantial number of stage rejigs was reminiscent of a school recital, as was the continual clapping of performers on and off the stage after practically every song. Moreover, the way the songs came thick and fast left little room for engagement with the poetic material that is so central to them; even with the words in front of me, I found it impossible to give the poetry the attention it demanded, a problem exacerbated by the complete lack of any unifying thematic or stylistic threads running through the concert – unless you can count von Lipinski’s communicative brilliance, that is.