MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny

  • Deputy Editor - Bob Briggs

Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Birtwistle: London Sinfonietta, Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Ryan Wigglesworth, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6.7.09 (GDn)

Birtwistle: Semper Dowland, semper dolens: theatre of melancholy (London Premiere)

Birtwistle: The Corridor – a scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments (London Premiere)

‘I’m obsessed by the myth of Orpheus’ says Harrison Birtwistle. No kidding. The Corridor is a substantial work of music-theatre based on a single instantaneous (albeit pivotal) event in the story: the moment when Orpheus turns. And the event is not presented as the work’s climax, it occurs in the first few minutes, ruling out the possibility of any sort of traditional narrative structure. The established forms and genres of music-theatre are studiously avoided throughout. Unfortunately, neither Birtwistle nor his librettist, David Harsent, propose any viable alternatives, undermining both the artistic focus and the structural coherency of the result.

The work is scored for two singers and six instrumentalists playing harp, flutes, clarinets, violin, viola and cello. The players sit centre-stage, a layout designed to facilitate close interaction with the singers. This mainly involves Elizabeth Atherton, as Eurydice, asking them questions in declamatory, rhythmic speech. But is their music intended as response? It lacks the independence from the vocal lines to afford it the status of commentary, or of chorus in the classical sense. A red carpet is laid across the stage in front of the players, the eponymous corridor to Hades upon which the action, or at least the event, takes place. A film is projected onto a screen above, showing Orpheus turning his head and the slow footfalls of Eurydice’s return journey, all presented in monochrome freeze-frame slow motion. The instantaneous event is given a temporal dimension, but it serves to prolong rather than to substantiate.

Musically, however, the work lives up to Birtwistle’s high standards. He is one of the few modernist composers of opera who can instil such passion in his vocal lines that the aesthetic sits comfortably with the genre. And his use of the instruments is never less than dramatic; the violence with which sounds are drawn from the cello and harp gives the writing for both instruments a visceral immediacy. The harp becomes the lyre of Orpheus, a window on his soul and medium for his self-induced torments. The harp writing is not radical but it is virtuosic and highly imaginative, the most distinctive sonority non-arpeggiated dissonant chords plucked fortissimo to dramatic, percussive effect.

Semper Dowland, semper dolens has the appearance of a work borne out of necessity, matching the scale and orchestration of The Corridor to form a complementary pair and a full evening programme. Birtwistle has found another needy musical cause in the legacy of John Dowland, specifically the need for a sympathetic modern context for music more suited to a renaissance court. The work is effectively a setting of Dowland’s Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavenes for tenor, ensemble, dancers and video projection. Birtwistle’s musical contribution is curiously tangential; his arrangements are respectful, verging on direct transcription, with consort of viols represented by muted strings and Dowland’s lute by the modern harp. The results project better than Dowland’s renaissance instruments might, but offer the music little else. Birtwistle’s most significant musical contribution has been the influence of his monumental reputation to secure the involvement of Mark Padmore. Stylistically, Padmore’s performance was ideal, but he was not in best voice. A chest cold may have been to blame, but the trademark clarity of his tone was notably absent in the lower range. Two dancers and a video projection completed the contemporary frame for Dowland’s masterpiece. Both were closely attuned to Dowland’s melancholic tone, but added little to music already so rich in imagery and emotion.

Both The Corridor and Semper Dowland were commissioned and co-produced by the Aldeburgh Festival, where they premiered last year. Birtwistle’s first opera, Punch and Judy, also had an Aldeburgh premiere in 1968, and a popular if apocryphal story has it that Britten and Pears walked out of that performance in disgust. Had they been here this evening, they may have eyed the exits during The Corridor. The Dowland would have been much closer to their hearts however, and they could probably have been relied upon to sit tight.

Gavin Dixon

Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page

counter to