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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Fields of Sorrow for two sopranos, chorus and sixteen players (1972) [9:58]
Verses for Ensembles for five woodwind, five brass and three percussion (1969) [28:13]
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus - a 'dramatic scene' for soprano, three bass clarinets, clarinet, piano, prepared piano and crotales (1970) [17:45]
Jane Manning (soprano); London Sinfonietta/David Atherton; The Matrix/Alan Hacker (Nenia).
rec. January, May 1973, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
first released in 1974 on Decca LP HEAD 7
recording made in association with British Council and in presence of the composer
LYRITA SRCD.306 [56:08]

Experience Classicsonline

Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington and studied at the then Royal Manchester College of Music with Richard Hall. With John Ogdon, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies he formed a performing cell that came to be known as the New Music Manchester Group. Since then he quickly rose to eminence and his latest opera The Minotaur has been premiered at Covent Garden and has had a BBC4 broadcast – a rare honour. He is not a minimalist - spiritual or otherwise. His writing revels with mastery and intriguing effect in a palette that admits dissonance and discontinuity. In his time he has seen his music rise into culturally sympathetic times but then gradually find itself adrift in the age of new tonality.

There are three works here and the total playing time is down to the LP format on which they were first issued during the Glock era. The depth of directional information is constantly satisfying in all these pieces and the original Decca engineers did an immaculate job. Listen to the subtle placing of the tiers of voices in The Fields of Sorrow which is, for Birtwistle, a gentle essay. Its elements might well have traced their fons et origo from Warlock’s The Curlew, from Vaughan Williams’ vocalising soprano in Sinfonia Antartica and from the intoned-mumbled round dance of the choir at the stately core of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus yet synthesised and refracted by Birtwistle into something rich and strange. The corncrake rasp and strangled Stravinskianisms of the wind parts in Verses for Ensembles contrasts with the graffiti of tom-toms, gongs and cymbals. The effect recalls similarly refracted and jagged writing in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. The textures and musical patins are in constant and provocative flux. The score is alive with the sound of the clarinet and percussion. Throaty strident fanfares bark and call. In this version of Nenia Jane Manning is the centre-focus in a performance that towers in its virtuosity. She sings, mumbles, mutters and speaks the words by Peter Zinovieff who also wrote the libretto for The Mask of Orpheus. Often each word is given a different sound – a different treatment. Manning imbues each one with a satisfying depth of allusion and the impression of ancient ceremonies. An affecting continuity is captured in the epilogue over an extended period where Manning speaks the words.

The words are printed in full. The satisfying notes are by Lyrita regular Paul Conway.

It is intriguing how the balance of the Lyrita catalogue is changing as a result of the admission of all these British Council sponsored recordings. Lyrita used to be the sanctuary of the lyrical British traditions. True, they did record Searle’s first two symphonies and the Third and Fourth by Robert Still. However the label’s hallmark was the tonality of the British Musical Renaissance. Now a slew of British Council recordings – with more to come – is equalising the balance. The irony is that Lyrita first rose to high prominence in the early 1970s at the very time when the new Decca Headline label was launched which included this clutch of works. Now Lyrita moves to rescue these tapes from oblivion and from the turned heads of fashion.

Rob Barnett

 

 

 


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