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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
Pulse Shadows (1996) Meditations on Paul Celan for Soprano, String Quartet and Ensemble

Claron McFadden (soprano)
Arditti Quartet
Nash Ensemble
Reinbert De Leeuw
Recorded at The BBC Hippodrome, London
TELDEC WDR 3 3984-26867-2 DDD [63:33]


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It is just possible that anyone who has struggled with Birtwistleís music in the past could be won over by this extraordinary work and recording. On the face of it is an unlikely coupling. Paul Celanís mysterious, emotionally charged imagery does not seem an immediate match for Birtwistleís uncompromising, stark and direct musical utterances. Yet what results is a work that gets right inside the very atmosphere of Celanís world in a truly haunting and affecting way.

As Stephen Pruslin explains in his booklet note it started "almost by accident". Birtwistle happened to come across Michael Hamburgerís English translation of Celanís White and Light one day in a magazine and decided to use it in a song setting. Shortly after, in 1991, two other poems, Night and Tenebrae, were set and the same year Birtwistle produced a brief Movement for String Quartet. Quickly adding two further quartet movements the composer suddenly found that he had two mini-cycles of three songs and three quartet pieces on his hands and thus the idea was born to create a multiplying cycle that would ultimately develop into the eighteen movements of Pulse Shadows.

Of the movements for quartet, Birtwistle creates a set of four "Friezes" and five "Fantasias", the Fantasias evoking resonances of early English viol music and exploring the material set down in the Friezes in freer form. The songs are interspersed between, the exception being Todesfuge, Celanís Deathfugue, where Birtwistle uses Frieze 4 and the string quartet to provide an instrumental commentary on the words of the poem. The composer himself has referred to the quartet pieces as "the songs that could not be written", instrumental responses to Celanís holocaust inspired poetry that Birtwistle felt to be too personal to be set, in a literal sense, to music.

Although Birtwistle intended that any of the songs or quartet pieces could stand alone as works in their own right, he has succeeded in creating an extraordinary sense of unity, due largely to the close relationships that exist between the "Frieze" and "Fantasia" elements of the quartet pieces, these serving to bind the work together. That said I would strongly recommend that after first listening to the disc, the various "movements" are listened to again, both in terms of the quartet pieces separate to the songs and even breaking down the quartet pieces further to listen to the Fantasias and Friezes as individual sets. Certainly for this listener, this was a process that paid considerable dividends when going back to the work in the order set down on the disc. It is a difficult and possibly unjustifiable task to select "highlights" from a work of this consistency, but I would single out Fantasias 3 and 4 for their very personal response to the aforementioned textural resonances of string music of an earlier age, the setting of Todtnauberg for its sheer impact in the way Birtwistle brings the poem into focus by combining the song setting with the spoken word and Todesfuge-Frieze 4, for the marvellous imagination involved in what amounts to a strikingly individual, contemporary response to the art of fugue.

With artists of the quality of the Arditti Quartet and the Nash Ensemble, the performances are consistently excellent both in the songs and quartet pieces. Claron McFadden delivers the vocal lines with fine articulation and never sounds uneasy, despite the considerable demands of Birtwistleís writing. The recording too is beyond reproach, crystal clear and balanced to perfection.

And so I come back to my opening comment. I know a good number of people who have always maintained that they will never "conquer" Birtwistleís music. Yet Pulse Shadows has a deeply rich vein of melody, lyricism and above all, emotion, at its heart. Easy listening then? Of course not. Birtwistle will always challenge, provoke, question and even intimidate the very fundamentals of musical art. I would simply maintain that in this highly personal response to Celanís equally personal poetry, Birtwistle has created a work of atmospheric beauty and imagery. I can think of relatively few composers who could match it for the sheer intensity of its expression.

Christopher Thomas.


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