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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Triumph of Timea (1972) [29’38]. Ritual Fragmentb (1990) [1123]. Gawain’s Journeya (1991) [24’37].
aPhilharmonia Orchestra, bLondon Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth.
Rec. aBlackheath Concert Halls in January 1993, bRosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, on November 21st, 1991.
NMC ANCORA NMC D088 [66’12]

A timely issue, coming into the shops as London celebrates the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle in a wide-reaching festival. The excellent company NMC has reissued The Triumph of Time and Gawain’s Journey (both previously on the lamented Collins Classics label) and added its own recording of Ritual Fragment (from NMC D009). The result is pure magic.

The Triumph of Time dates back to 1972. Inspired by a 1574 engraving by Pieter Breughel the Elder. The slow, onwardly grinding march that opens the work, comprised of a stack of layered ostinati, seems to be directly inspired by the idea of Time as unstoppable destroyer. Howarth and the Philharmonia perfectly project this sense of the massive; interesting that Pierre Boulez recorded this work in 1975 with the BBCSO on Argo790, a reading I have yet to hear. The Triumph of Time reveals Birtwistle at his most uncompromising, and at his most imposing. Despite the multitude of surface fragments, it is the seeming inevitability of the entire edifice that strikes this listener most forcibly. The recording (Producer John H. West; Engineer Antony Howell) is superb, with all the depth and space this score demands.

Ritual Fragment also puts forward the idea of a procession of sorts, by the articulatory force of a bass drum that punctuates the ongoing argument. The solos (that live do have a real element of spatial separation) are here moved closer in the sound-space. Written in memoriam Michael Vyner, the strength of this work lies in its simplicity. Emotionally, there is a devastated/devastating aspect to some of the barer scoring that fits the subject-matter perfectly. Here the players are the London Sinfonietta. In some ways, this is ‘their’ piece, and they play with an authority other ensembles could only dream of replicating.

Finally, Gawain’s Journey. The opera Gawain was started immediately after the massive Earth Dances (1986) and continues the immediacy of effect that work so convincingly generated. Although Journey begins with the opening of the opera and proceeds to refer to various stages of Act 1, it takes the majority of its material from Act 2. It acts as a timely reminder of the work’s stature to those of us lucky enough to have seen it at Covent Garden: unforgettable. Elgar Howarth’s familiarity with the opera, and indeed with Birtwistle’s output in general, leads to an unforgettable rendition of music of raw power. True that certain elements seem to refer to a stage-bound ‘other’ (the clippety-clop that seems to herald arrival, for instance), yet this is far more than just an introduction to Birtwistle’s opera. It stands as an effective concert work in its own right.

Very strongly recommended. It is good that Birtwistle is receiving the exposure he continues to deserve.

Colin Clarke


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