CBSO Centre, Birmingham
A week that began at the Barbican with Jonathan Harvey's musical visions of transcendence and the beyond ended in Birmingham with a very different meditation on death. First performed in 1999, Gérard Grisey's Quatre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil is one of the masterpieces from the final decades of the 20th century. That these settings of texts from four civilisations, which deal with "crossing the threshold" from life to death, were completed just before Grisey died suddenly at the age of 52, only sharpens their intensity, their haunting mix of tragic inevitability and gentle consolation.
Perhaps appropriately, performances of this extraordinary work remain rare. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's was conducted by Clement Power, with Susan Narucki as the soprano soloist; though her French was not ideally idiomatic, Grisey's very particular musical world was instantly evoked, with its meticulous textures, wonderful refined harmonies and ability to transform the simplest idea into something of wonder and great expressive power.
The rest of the programme framed a new work with a revival of a previous BCMG commission – Judith Weir's rambunctious little concerto for 10 instruments from 1995, Musicians Wrestle Everywhere – and with Gerald Barry's Feldman's Sixpenny Editions, an affectionate mix of faded sentimentality and banal assertiveness, premiered last year by the London Sinfonietta.
The new work was by the BCMG's 2011 apprentice composer-in-residence, Seán Clancy. His Findetotenlieder sets a text from visual artist Gabriel Orozco's Obit, a collection of surreal descriptions culled from newspaper obituaries. A song by the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem is apparently implicated in Clancy's settings, and they also owe something to Barry, as well as to his own teacher Howard Skempton and perhaps to Richard Ayres. But the result lacks the charm and gentle wit those composers might bring to such material.
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