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