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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
Theseus Games (2003)
Earth Dances (1985)
¹Ensemble Modern/Martyn Brabbins, Pierre-André Valade
²Ensemble Modern Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
¹recorded live: Ruhr Biennale, Duisberg 19-20 September 2003
²recorded live: Frankfurt Alte Oper, 29 October 2001.DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 0702 [66'63"]


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.

Thematically, too, 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.

Theseus Games 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 vistas.

Whether Birtwistle 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 neuen Taten"?

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

Anne Ozorio



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