Review: The Songbook
4.0Overall Score

There was cause for celebration at the CBSO centre as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group celebrated the 75th work funded through their Sound Investment scheme, initiated at a time when other crowdfunding projects were but a twinkle in the art world’s eye. The remaining programme was also retrospective, comprising 17 songs commissioned from various composers in the 80s and 90s by composer John Woolrich and soprano Mary Wiegold.

The challenges in programming the resulting loose collection should not be underestimated. Placing them side by side can result in an overabundance of contrast and lack of long-term dramatic arc, while the constant changes of singer and ensemble often causes an unsettling bittiness.

Through clever programming BCMG mostly avoided these pitfalls. However, it was noticeable that when the excellent Gillian Keith got her teeth, and vocal cords, into a small set of songs by Harrison Birtwistle, she could do far more with the longer emotional trajectory.

Keith’s lighter and supple soprano was complemented by the darker tones of Rebecca von Lipinski, who excelled in Thomas Adès’s operatic setting of Tennessee Williams, as well as the typically idiosyncratic premiere from Irish composer Gerald Barry. The complexity of the music occasionally led Lipinski to an overdependence on the score, stifling her communication a little.

The musicians of BCMG turned out an excellent performance lead by the excellent young English conductor Jonathan Berman, though one wonders whether the baton is always necessary with such small groups. From the players, clarinettist Oliver Janes in particular put in a shift in this clarinet-heavy programme.

Each composer offered a very different take on the song, from the more traditionally romantic works of Kurt Schwertsik to the nonsense syllables and rhythmic skips of Jonathan Harvey’s You, the latter delivered with aplomb by Keith. With this vast array of styles and voices on display it was often the most still music that made an impression, such as Aldo Clementi’s mesmerising Wiegenlied. It was a joy too to hear the music of Salvatore Sciarrino, which is all to little performed in the UK. His Due Risvegli e il Vento was a real musical highlight.

About The Author

Neil Smith is a Scottish musician living in Birmingham. He is a composer, flute player with new music ensemble Dark Inventions and a research student at the University of Nottingham.