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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
Punch and Judy (1967) [99:25]
Pretty Polly: Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano); Judy: Jan de Gaetani (mezzo); Lawyer: Philip Langridge (tenor); Punch: Stephen Roberts (baritone); Choregos: David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); Doctor: John Tomlinson (bass)
London Sinfonietta/David Atherton
rec. Decca, London, September 1979
NMC ANCORA NMC-D138 [47:51 + 51:34]


Huge thanks to NMC for rescuing this late 1960s classic from a time when the ‘Manchester School’ was changing British music – but not as dramatically as urban myths have it, especially the Britten walk-out story.

I was lucky enough to have attended Sheffield University (1969-74) so the lovely Firth Hall on Western Bank often saw the Pierrot Players (later ‘Fires of London’) as relatively young people in those heady days.

The stage had no easy access for a wheelchair so Harry, Max and Pruslin heaved Alan Hacker up. He and Judith Pearce tuned the ensemble between clarinet and flute because what we heard was precise and serious; nothing was left to chance.

I feel sorry for those who never heard the music live. Although the BBC recorded a couple of concerts they were wiped in the 1980s although some engineers’ copies are with me. Others from the great days of analogue may survive elsewhere.

Punch and Judy has much of the expressionist shock value of Maxwell Davies’ at the same time with the Mad King, scores for Ken Russell and Miss Donnithorne. Birtwistle looked back further into musical history and started to form his unique style of overlapping time, perfected in The Mask of Orpheus but mature in Punch and Judy.

Sure there is the somewhat annoying 12-tone angularity of that time but it melts away as we hear a great composer making his mark and following his instincts. By 1968 he was aged 34 but with the experience of a musician in the army and a remarkable ear for subtle wind harmonies. He is in this sense rather like Britten if one considers it and knows enough.

Fellow contributor Anne Ozorio has summarised the ‘plot’ written by Stephen Pruslin. The crucial thing to bear in mind is that Birtwistle overlaps time and references – thus Judy dies four times. One loses count of the demise of Orpheus in The Mask … This genius isn’t telling a straight story so much as pulling the listener in to the power of music to engage attuned brains and imagination to many dimensions.

Sure we know when Punch and Judy ends because Choregus tells us in the last line but the wondering and brain teasing goes on. As I recall when Birtwistle presented The Mask of Orpheus at the Coliseum (working the tapes) he left me guessing to this day.

Alas the NMC recording of Orpheus is a mere shadow of Atherton’s Punch and Judy but the BBC and BLSA managed to lose Act 2. Fortunately I have it.

Before summing up this reissue I want to dispose of the matter of Britten walking out of Punch and Judy in disgust unless I see evidence of his opinions. It has to be remembered that Britten was very ill at that time so I invite people to put me right. There is nothing in Punch and Judy which would have been beyond his grasp. One only needs to remember Our Hunting Fathers, The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, Death in Venice and the Canticles. Indeed, Birtwistle’s overlapping dialogue in the early part of the opera is much like Peter Grimes Act 1.

Atherton’s 1979 recording of Punch and Judy for Decca with a star cast and marvellous engineering and remastering is a must-have for anyone interested in a consistent genius of our times. Let the ‘plot’ take care of itself because it will be different for all. The sound and authority of this set are up there with the greats. I do not say that lightly and have sometimes been accused of being negative; not here - so buy it.

As usual, listen through really good gear and a good DAC which will not cost you silly money if you do your research.

Would that NMC’s Mask of Orpheus was a quarter as good as this but it isn’t. Maybe the Langridge Mask will be found from somewhere but at least we have him here with a Punch.

Stephen Hall

see also review by Anne Ozorio




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