New Music Biennial review – a broad-minded mix of genres and styles

Classical music

Various venues, Coventry
On its 10th anniversary, the biennial featured 10 new pieces and 10 revivals, from Paul Purgas’s pulsing tape piece to Arlene Sierra’s touching work for three pianos and birdsong

Sun 24 Apr 2022 15.09 BST

The structure of the PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial now seems firmly established. A weekend presenting 20 mostly new works, each nominally lasting just 15 minutes, and each performed twice in an hour-long slot, separated by a platform discussion with the composer and perhaps the performers. The last biennial took place in Hull and London in 2019; Coventry, the current UK city of culture, hosted the new one, which will be repeated at the Southbank Centre in July.

This year’s programme celebrates the 10th anniversary of the scheme by including some works from previous biennials, so that there are 10 new scores and 10 revivals, with the usual broad-minded mix of genres and styles. So on the opening night there were two premieres, alongside pieces originally heard in 2014 and 2017. The new works, both performed in Coventry Cathedral, provided the frame. Paul Purgas’s pulsing exploration of the past, present and future of analogue recording techniques, complete with light show, ended an evening that had begun rather unpromisingly with Toby Young’s Breathlines, which at almost 25 minutes easily outstayed its welcome.

Written for saxophonist Amy Dickson and the choir and ensemble of the Armonico Consort, and described as something between a concerto and a meditation, Breathlines alternates extracts from a pre-recorded lecture on breathing techniques with anodyne saxophone soliloquies accompanied by baroque strings and wordless voices and occasional halos of electronic sound. It’s intended to create a space of contemplation and invoke positive change; instead there was only impatience at its lack of real musical substance.

Xenia Pestova Bennett, one of the three pianists in a performance of Arlene Sierra’s Urban Birds at Drapers’ Hall, Coventry. Photograph: Jamie Gray

In between, the HMV Empire played host to Philip Venables and David Hoyle’s scabrous, scary, and hilarious performance piece Illusions, first seen in Hull in 2017. And in Drapers’ Hall, the pianists Xenia Pestova Bennett, Sarah Nicolls, and Eliza McCarthy returned to Arlene Sierra’s Urban Birds from 2014. Sierra overlays samples of the songs of three familiar British birds – the blackcap, skylark and cuckoo – with the sounds of the three pianos, with added percussion and disklavier, so that the birds become part of the musical fabric in an utterly unpretentious and in the end rather touching way.

• Recordings from the New Music Biennial will be included in BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show from 30 April, and the whole event is repeated at the Southbank Centre, London, from 1 to 3 July.

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