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S & H Concert Review

Birtwistle, Eötvös London Sinfonietta/Martyn Brabbins, Pierre-André Valade, QEH, Tuesday, December 2nd, 2003 (CC)


Any new Birtwistle piece is an event. Here we were treated to the London première of Theseus Game and a stunning performance of the now well-known Tragoedia of 1965. Sandwiched between these two gems was a piece by the Transylvanian Peter Eötvös (better known perhaps as a conductor), of which more later.

First, let’s concentrate on some real music. Tragoedia features two major protagonists (cello and horn) with harp acting as an ‘intermediary’. Greek drama lies at the essence of its construction, the work being symmetrical around the central, calm ‘Stasimon’. The implied stage element is of course of great importance to Birtwistle (Tragoedia is itself preparatory to Punch and Judy). Certainly there is a sense of the dramatic in the movement of pitch from one instrument to another in space. There was an urgency to this account, so that when the harp announced the Stasimon, it seemed to act as a taming of the beasts. Brabbins had obviously encouraged his players to bring out the melodious, lyrical element of the piece (solo horn and cello lines, however disjunct, however large the intervallic leaps, emerged like ‘vocal’ lines). The ritual element, so important to this composer, was projected perfectly.

Theseus Game (2002/3) was the major piece of the concert, however. Scored for, effectively, chamber orchestra, it is a major and important work in this composer’s oeuvre. Much of Birtwistle’s pre-concert chat with Nicholas Kenyon centred on the need for two conductors and the compositional/notational ‘neatness’ of this technique (which is also to be found in The Mask of Orpheus). Layout was carefully thought through, with strings in a single line across the stage, a conductor on either side and pitched percussion along the back. The use of vibraphones and marimbas might seem a nod in the direction of Boulez, but this was Birtwistle through and through.

The work’s title is a metaphor for the form of the work - Theseus escaped from the Minotaur’s labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s thread. The ‘thread’ is one of Birtwistle’s endless melodies that is put forward by a succession of soloists that take centre-stage. Birtwistle has referred to Theseus Game as a ‘super-concerto for orchestra’ (it would be from his pen, and nothing less would do for the London Sinfonietta). The procession of solo parts Birtwistle presents is in essence an encyclopaedia of difficulties, and all credit should go to the individuals of the London Sinfonietta for triumphing so remarkably. By having two ensembles (and two conductors – Brabbins was joined by the young Pierre-André Valade) in a state of constant flux, the music takes on a remarkable fluidity. So despite much surface complexity, as so often with Birtwistle the basis is simple, and it is this that gives the work its sense of inevitable, seemingly eternal tread. The composer himself described the work, in the pre-concert event, as a ‘complex joy-ride’. Certainly there was much to enjoy.

Ligeti-like explosions punctuating solo breaks, antiphonal brass indulging in primal call-and-response and an over-arching sense of the lyric-dramatic characterize this exposition of compositional virtuosity. If the underlying simplicity of concept married to the sometimes visceral, yet often beautiful, scoring appeals to the primal side of all of us, the foreground of the music itself fascinates on a second-to-second level. Masses of sound pulsate as if alive, bursting with an energy that propels the piece along. Theatrical gestures abound – a player due for a solo may be ‘introduced’ by a second player in the main body of the ensemble (as was the case with the trumpet solo). It is impossible to single out individual players, such was the uniform excellence on show.

The final gestures will remain for long in the memory. Solo cor anglais and violin interact in a plaintive valediction; a Boulez-like upward arpeggiation near the end is a moment of pure magic. The thought crossed my mind of a possible Petrushka influence on this work. There is a passage for clarinet and tuba that seems to make oblique reference to the Stravinsky – also the antiphonal use of trumpets. Perhaps I’m imagining it, or perhaps it was subliminal on Birtwistle’s part. The fact remains that whatever external references one chooses to make, there is never any mistaking the genius of the composer of Theseus Game.

The choice of Peter Eötvös’ Wind Sequences was s strange one – surely an all-Birtwistle concert would have still guaranteed a full house. Coming in at 28 minutes, Wind Sequences is about 23 minutes too long. Andras Wilheim’s brief note refers to a ‘constant sense of repose expressed through harmonic movement’ and also to the fact that ‘it has no specific goal’. Too right it doesn’t. If the ritualism of the second movement (‘Three mountain wind sequences’) might on the surface be a link with Birtwistle, any comparison stops right there. This is minor league stuff. By mid-way through the third movement (of eight), ‘Seven whirlwind sequences’, with its side-glances in the direction of Bartók, it is clear that we have well and truly arrived in the world of the facile. The ‘North wind sequences’ (movement five) are characterized by upward scales tossed around the ensemble; the South Wind sequences (movement six) are, unsurprisingly, depicted by descending scales. Perhaps in another context Wind Sequences might have appeared as quite interesting in a harmless sort of way. But juxtaposed with the heft of Birtwistle, the only reaction surely can only be, ‘Why?’

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear & Now programme on Sunday January 3rd, 2004. Make a note in your diary to stay in for the Birtwistle pieces.

Colin Clarke




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