Huge thanks to NMC
for rescuing this late 1960s classic
from a time when the ‘Manchester School’
was changing British music – but not
as dramatically as urban myths have
it, especially the Britten walk-out
I was lucky enough
to have attended Sheffield University
(1969-74) so the lovely Firth Hall on
Western Bank often saw the Pierrot Players
(later ‘Fires of London’) as relatively
young people in those heady days.
The stage had no easy
access for a wheelchair so Harry, Max
and Pruslin heaved Alan Hacker up. He
and Judith Pearce tuned the ensemble
between clarinet and flute because what
we heard was precise and serious; nothing
was left to chance.
I feel sorry for those
who never heard the music live. Although
the BBC recorded a couple of concerts
they were wiped in the 1980s although
some engineers’ copies are with me.
Others from the great days of analogue
may survive elsewhere.
Punch and Judy
has much of the expressionist shock
value of Maxwell Davies’ at the same
time with the Mad King, scores
for Ken Russell and Miss Donnithorne.
Birtwistle looked back further into
musical history and started to form
his unique style of overlapping time,
perfected in The Mask of Orpheus
but mature in Punch and Judy.
Sure there is the somewhat
annoying 12-tone angularity of that
time but it melts away as we hear a
great composer making his mark and following
his instincts. By 1968 he was aged 34
but with the experience of a musician
in the army and a remarkable ear for
subtle wind harmonies. He is in this
sense rather like Britten if one considers
it and knows enough.
Ozorio has summarised the ‘plot’
written by Stephen Pruslin. The crucial
thing to bear in mind is that Birtwistle
overlaps time and references – thus
Judy dies four times. One loses count
of the demise of Orpheus in The Mask
… This genius isn’t telling a straight
story so much as pulling the listener
in to the power of music to engage attuned
brains and imagination to many dimensions.
Sure we know when Punch
and Judy ends because Choregus tells
us in the last line but the wondering
and brain teasing goes on. As I recall
when Birtwistle presented The Mask
of Orpheus at the Coliseum (working
the tapes) he left me guessing to this
Alas the NMC recording
of Orpheus is a mere shadow of
Atherton’s Punch and Judy but
the BBC and BLSA managed to lose Act
2. Fortunately I have it.
Before summing up this
reissue I want to dispose of the matter
of Britten walking out of Punch and
Judy in disgust unless I see evidence
of his opinions. It has to be remembered
that Britten was very ill at that time
so I invite people to put me right.
There is nothing in Punch and Judy
which would have been beyond his grasp.
One only needs to remember Our Hunting
Fathers, The Turn of the Screw,
Billy Budd, Death in Venice
and the Canticles. Indeed, Birtwistle’s
overlapping dialogue in the early part
of the opera is much like Peter Grimes
Atherton’s 1979 recording
of Punch and Judy for Decca with
a star cast and marvellous engineering
and remastering is a must-have
for anyone interested in a consistent
genius of our times. Let the ‘plot’
take care of itself because it will
be different for all. The sound and
authority of this set are up there with
the greats. I do not say that lightly
and have sometimes been accused of being
negative; not here - so buy it.
As usual, listen through
really good gear and a good DAC which
will not cost you silly money if you
do your research.
Would that NMC’s Mask
of Orpheus was a quarter as good
as this but it isn’t. Maybe the Langridge
Mask will be found from somewhere
but at least we have him here with a
see also review
by Anne Ozorio