CBSO Centre, Birmingham
British composers nowadays rarely set Tennyson's poems. But for his Birmingham Contemporary Music Group commission (immaculately introduced by soprano Claire Booth with Oliver Knussen conducting), Jo Kondo has done just that. For the piece Three Songs Tennyson Sung, the Japanese composer prefaces three extracts from the long narrative poem The Princess with an instrumental prelude that defines the colour and harmonic world of the music to come. The songs form an introspective sequence, with a lullaby at the centre and a final setting of The Splendour Falls, whose gentle cadences and bell-like piano chords could hardly be more different from Britten's setting of the same text in his Serenade.
The concert began with more Kondo: his trio Standing, from 1973. The players choose their instruments ? here it was violin, piano and marimba ? and follow each other along a single melodic line. It is almost childlike in its directness, and contrasted sharply with Stefan Wolpe's rather overwrought Piece in Two Parts for Six Players. Knussen's own Requiem: Songs for Sue has a profoundly personal eloquence; Booth sang the settings of Dickinson, Machado, Auden and Rilke with ever greater effectiveness.
The second half followed the same Japanese-American-British plan. After the Kondo premiere came Morton Feldman's The Viola in My Life II, and Birtwistle's Silbury Air, which sounded wonderfully earthy and robust. There was an unscheduled premiere, too: John Woolrich's short, understated piece to mark the presentation of the Royal Philharmonic Society's Leslie Boosey award to BCMG's artistic team, Stephen and Jacquie Newbould, richly deserved.
? Broadcast on Radio 3's Hear and Now on Saturday.