S&H Concert Review

BIRTWISTLE Composer Portrait BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Jac van Steen, with Richard Hodges (clarinet) Nicolas Hodges (pianist) John Harle (saxophone) The Barbican15 February 01 (JM)

Harrison Birtwistle is now 65. For the occasion, the BBC dedicated a Composer Portrait evening to his music. The first work was Melencolia I (1976) for solo clarinet, additional solo harp and orchestra. The piece starts coming from nowhere out of silence with the kind of tone that clarinets can produce so wonderfully. Melencolia I is truly lyrical music, with long spun melodic lines above a well balanced, almost reserved orchestra with mysterious sounds. Richard Hodges produced wonderful pianissimo tones, but lacked fullness and expression in the fortes. Melancolia I - as I understand it - is about the contrast between the individual and a group, a mass, a society... but Hodges didn't communicate the expressive individuality of his part as he should have done, tending rather to hide behind his rather formal and polished technique.

Harrison's Clocks (1997-8) for solo piano is a large five-part structure. Stylistically the work is maximalist music with repetitive minimalist elements. Here one could clearly perceive Birtwistle's obsession with complex overlapping cyclical processes. Some of the cycles are so large, with long pauses in between, that they can hardly be heard as cycles, just like in real life. Occasionally I could even hear jazzy Ragtime elements. The accomplished pianist Nicolas Hodges brought both the mechanical elements and the lyrical lines of this remarkable piece alive. Each of the five sections begins with a signal-like descending line of notes ending on a deep, noisy chord. The repetition of this gesture at intervals throughout the piece seemed a bit silly, especially if one contrasts that with Birtwistle's statement, that he doesn't care, how a piece starts. You might as well use the same single note.

Panic (1995) for alto saxophone, drum kit and string orchestra caused some stir on the final night of the Proms 1995. The title already promises something spectacular, a bit like New Labour. But I wasn't convinced. The saxophone in an orchestral environment, even without strings, is always problematic. Due to its rich harmonics the sound of the saxophone ovelaps with a lot of orchestral instruments, with the result that I often couldn't hear John Harle, who unquestionably is an excellent player. Also the drum kit at the front of the stage, together with the saxophone and the players moving around, suggested the hippness of mixed media to increase the street cred. Maybe Birtwistle composed Panic with a twinkle in the eye, but it doesn't really work.

In contrast the large orchestral work Earth Dances (1985-6) is a huge achievement. Compare that with Messiaen's tasteless, vulgar Turangalila symphony. Layers of complex textures - Birtwistle calls them strata - move against each other, like tectonic plates, creating friction and releasing vast energies. The work is very varied, with mechanical, repetitive elements, long drawn, almost static melodic gestures and percussive noise. Sometimes the different cycles all come together at their wildest moments, which creates an overwhelming density. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the suave guidance of Jac van Steen gave a wonderful performance of this complex and powerful music. It might have sounded even better in a different hall, like the Tonhalle in Zurich, or the Philharmonie in Berlin.

Jean Martin

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