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Touching all bases

02/03/2002 -  
Julian Anderson: Alhambra Fantasy
Huw Watkins: Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments
Gerald Barry: Dead March
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Bass Inventions

Dave Holland (double bass), Ulrich Heinen (cello)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Peter Rundel (conductor)

This Proms-like programme of recent work by living composers was a welcome but uncharacteristic contribution to the Barbican's Great Performers series. The great performer was probably Dave Holland, the soloist for whom Mark Anthony Turnage wrote Bass Inventions, here getting its London premiere, but the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also thoroughly justify the title. They were magnificent in the opening work, Julian Anderson's Alambra Fantasy, a striking two-part evocation of the rough craft of building the palace of the title and of the slightly exotic culture of life there. Ulrich Heinen, the cello soloist of Huw Watkins' Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments (written for the composer's brother, Paul) also had a touch of greatness, playing with depth and beauty a work that on first hearing had aspects of a study.

The orchestra had a further chance to show rude energy in Gerald Barry's new work, Dead March, also in its London premiere. The title must be a joke. The boisterous assembly of melodic outbursts might wake the dead, although there are fragments of march in there.

Turnage's Bass Inventions was the main interest of the afternoon, since Turnage is these days a Major Composer. Exactly as the title says, it is set of inventions for bass and orchestra, in a fair approximation of classic jazz style. The bass part is both written and improvised, with a choice of both in one movement. Unlike Turnage's earlier drug-and-Beckett inspired works based on jazz, the music is utterly mellow, occasionally even perhaps sentimental. The Silver Tassie seems to have sent him back to the early twentieth century. But it was utterly enjoyable, as was Holland's encore, his own solo composition Homecoming.

H.E. Elsom



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