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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. London, September 1989
NMC ANCORA NMC-D138 [47:51 + 51:34]


For this reissue of the Birtwistle classic, "Punch and Judy", we have to thank NMC Recordings. Their Ancora series is devoted to reissuing important modern British works, deleted elsewhere. Even more importantly, NMC’s policy is never to delete its own titles, so this recording will be permanently available. Given current market forces, this is a remarkable act of faith, which should be admired, respected and supported. Congratulations, NMC for helping to keep new British music alive !

"Punch and Judy" is a delightful "tragical comedy or comic tragedy ", which rather sums up its anarchic spirit. When it was premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968, it caused a furore even in those relatively enlightened circles. Benjamin Britten walked out. Time, however, has vindicated Birtwistle, who has now become almost part of the establishment and even has a knighthood. Britten might choke! On the other hand Britten might also have liked some of Birtwistle’s later work. Nonetheless, thinking back to the 1960s, maybe its shock value is understandable. Punch and Judy, the puppets, are violent, however much they might have been prettied up. Punch is a vicious psychotic, and the policeman almost equally evil. Violence is staple fare in popular culture – think of Sylvester the Cat and Tweetie Pie. On the other hand, Tweetie Pie always escapes, and is clearly a character to identify with. Punch, on the other hand is an unredeemed psychotic, an evil force straight out of the Id, controlling and himself uncontrollable.

Traditionally, Punch and Judy are puppets safely contained within the confines of a booth. On stage, however, they are unrestrained and wander dangerously free. Birtwistle creates a tight musical structure to hold in the drama, a kind of musical puppet booth, perhaps even a prison without walls. The action starts and ends with the Choregos, (Greek chorus leader), who comments on the action with an element of detachment: when he himself is drawn into the action part way through, it’s quite unsettling, as Birtwistle no doubt knew. The music is also organised in distinct sections, modelled explicitly on Bach Passions. This adds yet another disturbing element to the whole, but has a certain logic, given that Birtwistle has said he considered the St Matthew Passion "an ideal in that the very layout and structure of the work constitute a kind of theatre which does not depend on theatrical realisation to make its point". Choregos as Evangelist? Shocking possibilities … but the idea of theatre without theatrical convention is intriguing.

Forty years on, the music doesn’t sound nearly as bizarre as it must have at first. Neither has it dated, which is even more important. The strange, contorted quirks in the legato still have the power to unsettle, and the curious singing style – half cartoon, half farce – still works well. Stephen Roberts spits out Punch’s lines as if he were spitting like a snake, then curls his vowels menacingly. His pursuit of Pretty Polly, too, is shaped with slimy malice – no wonder she‘s not having him! All the characters are sung with highly stylised melodrama, which is what’s needed. Lurid-coloured staging and costumes would go so well. The minimalist orchestration focuses attention on the contortions of the vocal lines. Even if there were alternative recordings available this would be one to choose because it’s such a vivid performance.

Anne Ozorio


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