Sunday 21 June 2009

Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group play Grime, Carter and Stockhausen (and lose Leo and Cancer)

Two of the highlights of last year's Aldeburgh festival were Thomas Ades's concert with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (see review) and Oliver Knussen's concert with the Philharmonia (unfortunately the notes I took for that concert have steadfastly refused to write themselves up into a review, maybe one day...). So, to put half of each together could surely only be a good thing; and, for the most part, it was.

The concert began with a piece by Knussen from 1981 entitled Coursing. It's funny (not the piece, I mean life), only yesterday I mentioned that sometimes I find a programme note unhelpful. Today, quite the reverse. I didn't read the note and the piece didn't entirely grab me. It had an interesting orchestration but seemed somewhat chaotic, then midway through some clarity and relative stillness. The programme note explained he was depicting water surging up to and over the Niagara Falls. I read this right after (as normally I enjoy Knussen's work more) and it was like a light being switched on. I only wish I'd had the sense to read it before hand.

This was followed by two world premieres (so not quite up to my record six for one concert). Helen Grime's A Cold Spring was a beautiful three movement work, especially the central mini-concerto for horn, well played by Mark Phillips.

The final work before the interval was yet more in the celebration of Elliott Carter: On Conversing with Paradise, a setting of two cantos by Ezra Pound. It had a lot going for it, not least the drama and some fine orchestration (including contrabassoon, played by Mark O'Brien). The trouble was the poetry of Pound which, personally, I (and, indeed, everyone else I was with) found impenetrable. Still, having made the decision not to listen to the words (just as well, since only about half of them were distinguishable) or follow along with the text, I was able to enjoy it as purely musical piece. Still, it's a shame he didn't choose something else to set. Baritone Leigh Melrose sang well enough. It was well received and most of the audience gave Carter a standing ovation, though more it seems owing to the fact it's remarkable to still be writing such music at one hundred than the out and out quality of it.

Following the interval, we got a single work by Stockhausen: Tierkreis (Zodiac). Here slightly more from the programme notes might have been helpful. The printed programme book listed just seven of the twelve signs and as we entered the hall a handout named ten (omitting two that were in the printed book, Cancer and Leo falling by the wayside somewhere). During the interval, front of house staff were overheard noting it was a long scene change. Sure enough, on return to the hall, raised platforms had been put in, it turned out that this was to service an unusual layout, with strings raised up behind wind, percussion and brass. The work itself was most enjoyable, and colourfully orchestrated. Unfortunately, I managed to lose count of the movements (or rather, I got to ten before the concert ended); this means they either did play all twelve after all, or what sounded like a break between movements was just a pause. Perhaps it was this, but for the most part, with the exception of Scorpio early on, none of them really seemed to evoke their namesake. Until, that is, the penultimate movement when the tuba player strode loudly and (clearly deliberately) rather comically onto the stage, played a few notes, moved round further, played some more, and so on, before taking two intentionally over the top bows and departing again to a smattering of applause. It's nice to see a tuba (superbly played by Graham Sibley) feature so prominently (I think this was Taurus, which would rather fit). It was an enjoyable piece but, weighing in at about half an hour, begged the obvious question of what on earth had happened to the other two signs (shades of last year's Bartok Bagatelles). According to the programme note, said Stockhausen himself:

May each listener find a representation of himself in his own musical sign.

Would that I could have, unfortunately as a Cancer I was left high and dry.

However, I wouldn't want to let that detract from an otherwise most enjoyable evening. It should be noted, since I don't seem to have done so already, that the playing of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was, throughout, of the highest order.


Steve said...

Tam, there were indeed ten Tierkreis pieces, as listed in the hand out, performed on Saturday night. There were one or two abrubt pauses in the pieces and, like you, at one stage I got ahead of myself and thought that we had reached Aquarius when we were only on Capricorn.

The pieces, of course, started as melodies Stockhausen wrote for music boxes and there was a full set of twelve. Subsequently he created instrumental versions but the arrangements heard on Saturday night for small orchestra were a late worke which remained unfinished (with only ten of the twelve pieces complete) on his death in 2007. So, in that sense, what you heard on Saturday was the complete work.

As for the original programme listing, my first thought was that Olly Knussed had originally intended to do fewer pieces and decided in rehearsal to add to the list to lengthen the programme. However, I am reliably told that he had always intended to do all ten and besides the list in the programme book included Virgo for which no orchestral version exists. What seems to have happened is that the seven star signs originally listed were performed in their instrumental versions at the Aimard Collage-Montage event earlier in the festival and, presumably, when somebody was putting the programme together they referred to that list in error.

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for your detail on the piece Steve. I did wonder if maybe there were only ten (the programme note was a little vague on how many were orchestrated) but the presence of all twelve between the two lists let me to assume he finished all twelve in orchestral version.

Your theory for how the programme came to be the way it was is pretty convincing - there have been rather a lot of typos and errors this year.

Steve said...

Incidentally, Tam, I don't know whether you were at the Britten Pears Orchestra concert on Monday night, but Haydn's 90th was a good reminder that false endings are not the sole preserve of contemporary music!

Tam Pollard said...

Indeed I was and, I have to admit, I'd completely forgotten about it and was caught out:

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