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 ). 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.