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CD: AmazonUK

Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934)
Orpheus Elegies (2004) [39:37]
Three Bach Arias, arr. Birtwistle (2004) [13:35]
Melinda Maxwell (oboe/cor anglais); Helen Tunstall (harp); Andrew Watts (counter-tenor); with Claire Seaton (soprano), William Stafford, Tom Verity (clarinets), Ben Fullbrook (marimba) in Three Bach Arias.
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 28-29 August 2008 (Elegies) and 25 September 2008 (Bach).
OBOE CLASSICS CC2020 [53:12]
Experience Classicsonline

This music has cropped up on these pages as a 'Seen and Heard' review. As I miss and pine for the London concert scene so much, I leapt once again at the opportunity to have a peek at some of Birtwistle's recent work.

The Orpheus myth in one form or another has been the central theme of many of Harrison Birtwistle's works. In this case, the 26 Orpheus Elegies use the Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, of which a few are used in their entirety, but fragments of the texts from which are more frequently introduced, sometimes almost as aphorismic commentary on the mood and atmosphere of the music. Aside from specifying Elegy 1 to be played first, and Elegy 19 last, the order can be decided by the players. Each Elegy and its related Sonnet is clearly listed, with text and English translation, in the well documented 23 page booklet. There is also an interview with oboist Melinda Maxwell and the composer on the subject of the work, and an essay about Orpheus and Rilke by Jeremy Polmear.

I could go into reams of comment on the subject of symbolism and muso-textual content, but it is probably more use attempting to give an impression of the music as a whole. The Orpheus Elegies are a set of mostly short pieces, various in atmosphere, but sharing similar sonorities. The instruments are given equal weight in terms of sheer music. The harp has an inevitably ancient or timeless association whatever notes it plays, creating a backdrop of gentle sonority which is expressive, non-percussive, simultaneously tonal and atonal in Birtwistle's hands. The oboe has principally lyrical, expressive lines as well as some angular interjections. A work of long gestation, part of the creative process with this composition was discussion about the multiphonics and effects available to an oboist. These are used sparingly, heightening certain moments without being decisive to the character of the piece as a whole. The voice, a counter-tenor, sounds natural in this context, well supported by the harp, and meeting with the oboe as a family member rather than some kind of antagonist. This is not the kind of music from which you will be taking humming tunes, but you will take away something which will stay with you and hopefully enrich and enhance your literary and musical repertoire of experience. It takes time and a number of hearings, with text, to get a grip of the inner meaning of these Elegies, but the first impressions are not of 'difficult' music by any stretch. Enigmatic yes, and filled with complicated meaning and message, but so is any good poem, and you'd want to read one of those more than once if you are anything like me.

The Three Bach Arias were arranged as a companion to the Orpheus Elegies, but with the addition of marimba and extra bass and other clarinets their feel is altogether different. As the booklet notes explain, 'there are baroque allusions in the Orpheus Elegies in the use of a counter-tenor, and the music of each Elegy, like a Bach aria, represent a single emotional state, and is not developed in the classical sense.' This may be true, but seems more like an attempt to excuse rather than a convincing argument to make the two works complimentary, To me, they are anything but. The enigmatic, timeless and other-centred world of the Orpheus Elegies works in an entirely different way to Bach's churchy cadences, and the rather plinky-plonk use of the marimba in the arrangement for me raises the wrong kind of smile. These are perfectly serviceable arrangements if not entirely to my taste, but personally I believe they would function better wielded to almost any other Stile Antico work than the delicate expressivity of the Orpheus Elegies.

The performance of these pieces is excellent, and the trio of Melinda Maxwell, Helen Tunstall and Andrew Watts would be hard to better in any context. The engineer didn't get the level quite right from the outset in the vocal part, which distorts and retreats about 50 seconds into Elegy 14 - track 4. The great Tony Faulkner - tsk tsk. The balance is also a bit voice-heavy in parts of the final Bach duet, but this is probably accurate enough given the pointillist character of the accompaniment. In general the recorded sound is very good indeed. Altogether this is an unusual and rather special disc, which fans of the oboe, of British contemporary music and of Birtwistle should certainly acquire.

Dominy Clements



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