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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Birtwistle, Scelsi, Feldman, Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Paul Silverthorne (viola); London Sinfonietta/David Atherton, QEH, Thursday, October 28th, 2004 (CC)

It is always a privilege to hear Birtwistle’s music in expert performances. Part of his seventieth birthday celebrations, this concert acted as a reminder of the sheer individual fertility of this composer’s mind. His statement in the pre-concert discussion that he ‘never quite achieved’ what he ‘set out to do’ was amazing, given his stature and influence today. It was a fascinating event in which Birtwistle almost gave a mini-lecture on two of his passions, Paul Klee and Francis Bacon. How eloquent he could be (he’s for simplicity, against simple-mindedness). And, surprisingly, names were named – the recent Violin Concerto by André Previn was singled out. For the concert, three Birtwistle works (each close to repertoire pieces – certainly with the Sinfonietta) were separated by a piece each by Giacinto Scelsi and Morton Feldman. Inspired programming.

Ritual Fragment (1990) is a precursor of Theseus Game (2002/3: see my review of the London premiere). In both, soloists move around the stage from the main group to take on soloist status – and move back again. Such spatial play is par for the course, as is the layering techniques that provide a basis for the work. There are three layers: soloists, ensemble and a ‘continuo group’ (cello, piano and double-bass). Members of the ensemble move across the stage to assume soloist positions. A bass drum acts as structural articulator whilst simultaneously evoking funereal associations.

So much for the theory. Out of this comes a masterwork. This was a performance of great conviction, with each soloist adding his or her thoughts to the line (an ‘interpretative layer’, if you will). There seemed to be almost a ‘social’ aspect there too, in the way that soloists overlap so they effectively ‘greet’ each other before one returns to the tutti. As so often with the Sinfonietta, it is impossible to highlight favourites among the performers – perhaps Garthe Hulse’s cheeky oboe, later so marvellously eloquent?


Silbury Air was the other Birtwistle piece in the first half. Taking as its starting point Silbury Hill in Wiltshire (a 4,500 year-old pre-historic man-made mound, the largest of its type in Europe,) it exudes exactly the sort of primordial earthiness Birtwistle is so famous for. (He describes his feelings on visiting ancient monuments of this type as feeling like ‘someone watching cricket who doesn’t know the rules.’) Using much the largest ensemble of the first half, the opening reminded one that just as Birtwistle is frequently thought of as ‘modernist’ (with all the trappings of complexity that allegedly brings with it,) he speaks in the final analysis to the very depths of our souls, where our oldest ancestors lie. The primal throbbings and pulsating textures reveal a work that has an internal energy all of its own (and is not without moments of real delicacy, also).

Separating these works was Giacinto Scelsi’s Kya (1959) for solo clarinet (the excellent Mark van de Wiel) and seven instruments. Music of tone colour (although in a much more elongated sense than Webern ever could be), this three-movement, 18-minute work for solo clarinet and seven instruments (cor anglais, french horn, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, viola and cello) is effectively a study in timbral metamorphosis. Although most often soft and slow moving, this is a disturbed and disturbing near-stasis. The clarinet lines swooped mesmerically; the finale was a tarantella seen through a distorting fairground mirror. We need to hear more Scelsi on these shores.

Post-interval, it was Morton Feldman and the viola in his life (II) that brought back stillness – this time identifiably from this composer. Feldman’s emphasis on the sheer beauty of sound in itself was only emphasised by Paul Silverthorne’s burnished beauty of tone. This work, a rarefied compendium of the glacial, was in some senses a brave choice – in that as one listened it threatened to upstage Birtwistle himself.

No chance. Secret Theatre (1984) is one of Birtwistle’s best known and most respected scores, and with reason. The culmination of a trilogy of pieces begun with Silbury Air (the other work is Carmen Arcadiae Mecanicae Perpetuum), it is at once vintage, compositionally virtuosic Birtwistle and also the most haunting shadow play in music one could ever imagine. Birtwistle plays with various unisons – literal (same notes), harmonic (i.e. rhythmic, not pitch, unison) and heterophony. Of course there is also the spatial element with instrumentalists moving from Cantus (solo) to Continuum (another level – to call it ‘accompaniment’ is to undersell it – that sometimes made the hall vibrate with its energy). Sometimes instruments call across the gap, as when the flute makes a timbral link from its continuum position before moving to join the soloists. This really is a drama in sound, which here dances (almost literally, as there is a shadowy waltz at one point). The darker, valedictory feel of the final pages affects a dark closure.

Magnificent music, as if we didn’t already know. The Sinfonietta is quite simply without peer in this music, and David Atherton is of course an old hand at these scores. It is difficult to envisage a better concert of Birtwistle’s music. But then again, the festival is far from over.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Ritual Fragment (with The Triumph of Time and Gawain’s Journey): London Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth. NMC Ancora NMC D088

Secret Theatre: Ensemble Intercomtemporain/Pierre Boulez. Decca The British Connection 466 804-2

Theseus Game: Ensemble Modern/Brabbins, Valade, DG 20/21 477 070-2

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