> BIRTWISTLE Decca British Music Collection [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (born 1934)

Tragoedia (1965)a
Five Distances (1993)a
Three Settings of Celan (1989/1996)a
Secret Theatre (1984)a
Endless Parade (1987)b
Panic (1995)c
Earth Dances (1986)d
Christine Whittlesey (soprano in Three Settings); Ensemble InterContemporaina; Pierre Bouleza; Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)b; BBC Philharmonic Orchestrab; Elgar Howarthb; John Harle (saxophone)c; Paul Clarvis (drum kit)c; BBC Symphony Orchestrac; Sir Andrew Davisc; Cleveland Orchestrad; Christoph von Dohnányid
Recorded: Manchester 1990; Paris 1993; Cleveland, Ohio, 1995 and London 1995
DECCA British Music Collection 468 804-2 [76:07 + 74:43]


Harrison Birtwistle is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive composers of his generation. This is particularly evident in CD1 here coupling works written at various stages of his composing life. The quite early Tragoedia (1965) is a telling example of his early music. Its stylised ritual inspired by Greek drama has become a "red line" throughout Birtwistle’s output, whereas its refined violence is yet another unmistakable hallmark. Most Birtwistle fingerprints already feature prominently in this substantial score: arresting sonorities, rhythmic complexity, dramatic gestures, subtle use of dissonance to mention but a few. By comparison, Five Distances (1993) for wind quintet has a somewhat unexpected playfulness that one might not have readily associated with this composer. I had never heard this work before but I enjoyed every minute of it. The Three Settings of Celan, written at various periods between 1989 and 1996, show another facet of Birtwistle’s music, particularly a rather unsuspected ability to indulge in a more lyrical vein of great beauty. (These Celan settings were to be included in his substantial Pulse Shadows recorded recently.) Secret Theatre (1984) is the last panel of a trilogy composed for the London Sinfonietta (the other panels are Silbury Air [1976/7] and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum [1978]). The music is layered in what Birtwistle refers to as ‘strata’, i.e. Cantus (several players instructed to play from solo positions at the front of the ensemble) and Continuum. The music of the Cantus is essentially linear whereas the material for the Continuum is conceived vertically. Both interact continuously in ever-changing combinations in accordance with some ‘secret theatre’. Secret Theatre is a gripping piece of music that succeeds by the sheer force of its invention. I for one consider this brilliant concerto for ensemble one of Birtwistle’s most successful achievements.

The composer has described how the idea of Endless Parade for trumpet and strings came to him while travelling in Italy and visiting the town of Lucca at the time of ‘Festa’, i.e. a long procession "snaking its way through the narrow streets of the city". To a certain extent, this piece is a set of variations viewing several elements from different viewpoints. This is one of Birtwistle’s sunniest and most directly endearing works. It was written for Hardenberger who plays with superb sound and consummate assurance.

Earth Dances of 1986 is Birtwistle’s second large-scale work for full orchestra, completed several years after the masterly Triumph of Time (1972). This powerfully impressive work carries the layer technique of Secret Theatre a step further, in that there are now six such layers that continuously interact in ever-shifting relationships. The end result however is an impressive, craggy and rugged landscape of no mean grandeur.

The Last Night of the Proms in 1995, for which Birtwistle was commissioned to write Panic was a quite remarkable event in many respects. Rarely has a Prom piece given way to such white-hot controversy: "cons" were overtly outraged by this riotous, almost telluric evocation of Pan whereas "pros" relished the iconoclastic vitality of this exuberant piece. Indeed the music moves along with relentless intensity and, some would say, uselessly violent drive, actually with little respite, if any. I watched the first performance during the Last Night’s broadcast and I was frankly baffled by the sheer volume of intensity displayed in the piece, by the formidable assurance and physical strength of John Harle and Paul Clarvis and by the apparent nonchalance of Sir Andrew steering clear amidst this exciting Witches’ Cauldron. I still do not know whether or not I like this piece; but I know that, like it or not, this is a considerable technical feat.

CD1 is the re-issue of a disc released by DG some time ago. Pierre Boulez conducts carefully prepared readings of these often intricate scores and gets wonderful support from his players. CD2 is compiled from a fine Philips CD devoted to contemporary British trumpet concertos (the other works were Maxwell Davies’ and Michael Blake-Watkins’ trumpet concertos), and from an Argo disc including Harle’s stunning reading of Panic and von Dohnányi’s fine reading of the masterly Earth Dances.

The present double-CD set is a most welcome and generous introduction to Birtwistle’s distinctive, though exacting but often rewarding sound world. Not to be missed.

Hubert Culot


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