These two pieces, almost
identical in timing, form an interesting
continuum, to borrow a word beloved
of the composer. Earth Dances
was a milestone in Birtwistle's output,
and Theseus Games his most recent
major work. They work together like
two parts of a puzzle. Listening to
them back to front, first one, then
the other, then in reverse order, is
a fascinating exercise, reinforcing
the impact each piece has on its own.
Earth Dances was written in 1985,
Theseus Games in 2002/3, this
recording being a first, capturing the
premiére performance. It was
also performed at this August in the
2004 Proms where it was acclaimed.
perhaps they form a puzzle. In Greek
mythology, Theseus, set out on his destiny
through life by lifting a giant rock,
then, entering the Labyrinth, slew the
Minotaur. Birtwistle said of Earth
Dances that it is "like a giant
labyrinth, whose formal units appear
nearly identical, but wherever you are
inside it, whichever corner you turn,
there is some new aspect or perspective".
The music has progressed from "foreground"
and "background" shifts of
emphasis to something more multi-dimensional.
The title Earth Dances itself
describes the music well. Comparisons
have been made of this piece with Stravinsky's
Rite of Spring. The ballet explored
an ancient myth where maidens perform
a dance in a circle of stones or megaliths.
The dance is a ritual, a mystic Rite
by which a girl will be killed, so the
earth will be renewed. Just as Stravinsky
combined different chords and twisted
lines to describe the mysterious spells
being cast, Birtwistle’s figures shift
and change in mysterious, complex ways,
as if he too were evoking, but in an
abstract, impenetrable way, another
Earth rite from an ancient mythic past.
The composer said himself that he cast
the material "in layers which could
be compared to the strata in a rock
face, such as on a cliff".
From the start, Birtwistle’s
massive blocks of sound pile up, layer
on layer, sudden flashes of percussion
flashing light up through the darkness.
The movement here is of vast tectonic
plates, continents moving together,
shaping continents. The movement is
inexorable, almost linear – the action
is within the densely textured units.
Boulez conducts these forces with mastery.
How difficult it must have been for
the person playing those reverberating
bass drums to hear the solo flute enter,
or for the players to co-ordinate their
separate parts without a conductor whose
vision of the music is so vivid. Boulez
keeps individual textures precise, despite
the overall density of sound. Earth
Dances is a favourite of many good
conductors, but Boulez, to whom it was
dedicated, brings tight clarity to this
performance: a muddy, undisciplined
reading would disintegrate into chaos.
For players like Ensemble Modern, complex,
idiosyncratic music is a challenge to
be relished. Music like this needs and
deserves the finest, most articulate
musicians. In this case, Ensemble Modern
was augmented by key modern music specialists,
to provide the vast forces. Virtuoso
playing like this can't be compromised.
I don't think there will be a budget
version of this by some jobbing orchestra
in a long, long time.
is even more complex. Two separate conductors
participate, each conducting separate
parts of the Ensemble even though the
array of instrumentalists is smaller
than the number required in Earth
Dances. As with Charles Ives' Fourth
Symphony, this reflects the way in which
the composer deconstructs conventional
form. It takes repeated listening to
extricate the different ensembles, each
playing at different tempi, intertwining
and interweaving This is just like the
Labyrinth into which Theseus enters,
an adventurer into the Unknown. For
me, learning the piece for the first
time also felt like entering a labyrinth,
not knowing where it would lead, each
twist seeming to open new vistas, which
might suddenly and unexpectedly lead
to confrontation with the Minotaur.
What appears at first to be the "way"
is contradicted by the other, alternate
sound-world. A piece of music which
so involves a listener in this way is
inherently dramatic. Words would be
extraneous. Following the music is vivid
and emotionally engrossing. However,
Theseus in legend didn't negotiate the
Labyrinth without a fail-safe. He had
Ariadne's thread to guide him. Perhaps
in this piece it is the forward thrust
of the music that propels the listener
along. The pressure does not let up;
it surges on and on, relentlessly, with
no easy breathing spaces. Easy listening
it is not, however, and repays repeated
exploration, like a maze with myriad
has any conscious direction I do not
know. But there are enough connections
between Earth Dances and Theseus
Game to make one speculate. Where
is this leading? The primordial earth
forces of the earlier piece expand in
the later to encompass a wider scheme
of things. Just as in The Ring Wagner
moved from primeval gods to human psychological
depths, will Birtwistle follow on? Will
Theseus go on to new adventures, "zum
Truly, as listeners,
we are drawn inexorably into the bracing
experience of Birtwistle's world. This
is not merely a "recommended"
recording but an essential for anyone
who wants to keep pace with powerful,
distinctive music as it is being composed