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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1953)
Night’s Black Bird (2004) [14:04]
The Shadow of Night (2001) [28:15]
The Cry of Anubis (1994) [13:24]*
Owen Slade (Tuba*)
The Hallé/Ryan Wigglesworth
rec. 17-19 July 2010, Studio 7, BBC Manchester

Experience Classicsonline

Three première recordings of substantial orchestral works by Harrison Birtwistle, and the NMC label have yet another highly significant and world-class production to add to their already admirably adventurous and impressive catalogue. The booklet notes contain an essay by Bayan Nothcott called ‘Anatomies of Melancholy’ and, whatever else it is, one look at the titles should tell you this is not a programme which you would choose to get things going at your local street party.
Birtwistle describes The Shadow of Night as “a slow and reflective nocturne, exploring the world of melancholy as understood and celebrated by Elizabethan poets and composers.” There are little quotes from a song by John Dowland, In Darkness Let me Dwell, and the composer refers to an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I as a source of inspiration, but as ever with Birtwistle a lack of foreknowledge with these details makes little difference. The power of the music is in the weight of its orchestration, a potent sense of dark, even malevolent atmosphere, and the feeling you are in some way directly connected to the inner workings of the composer’s emotions and imagination. The work’s three sections move from a kind of extended build-up, with slowly surging clusters and fragmentary, sometimes stabbing melodic gestures. This tips into a strange inner world in the central section, with its halo of tuned percussion, secretive sustained notes and winding, elongated melodic lines. These often restrained but restlessly turbulent sections provide space for another extended build-up or sequence of progressing episodes, never quite reaching a clearly defined climax but passing through some cataclysmic events before withdrawing into darkness once again, a nocturnal space inhabited by disinterested birds. This is a hideously simplified description, but such an intense and immense landscape of sound is always going to be hard to summarise in a few words.
Paired in reverse chronology on the CD by request of the composer, The Shadow of Night is comparable in content and atmosphere with Night’s Black Bird. The two scores are given the same programme note, the latter however sourcing a different Dowland song, Flow My Tears. Similarly scored for large orchestra, Night’s Black Bird is a more compact and directly expressive work, the melodic lines moving over the moody bass textures intact from the start, the birdsong more explicit, at times occupying the foreground over sustained textures in a manner inevitably reminiscent of Messiaen, but occupying an entirely different field. Messiaen’s birds are shimmering converts to Catholicism, where Birtwistle’s are earthy and petulant. In some ways, this shorter work extracts the essence of The Shadow of Night, including all of its significant elements but seen through a different lens – a less microscopic examination of the materials, but still a monumental musical statement and expression of dark symbols.
The Cry of Anubis for tuba and orchestra is inevitably going to be compared to other concertante works, but doesn’t fall into the ‘concerto’ category in any traditional sense. Here, Birtwistle employs the tuba as a representation of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the city of the dead. The orchestra forms a medium sized if richly scored team, with double winds but no trombones, something which may serve the practical purpose of heightening the clarity between the orchestral sonorities and the tuba. The recording balances the soloist nicely against the orchestra; well-defined but not placed too close, so that a realistic concert-hall impression of the work in its entirety comes through your speakers. While this work inhabits some of the same dark associations of the other two works, it is clearly different in character. The piece was written for an educational concert given in 1995 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and in some ways it can almost be heard as a ‘concerto for orchestra’, with significant passages and even solos from each section. These all integrate into succinct and well-defined musical arguments, and I’m not suggesting a Brittenesque ‘Young Person’s Guide’ kind of presentation, but perhaps even unconsciously one can sense the ear roaming over the orchestra in the way a spotlight might pick out the action on a stage. One thing there is no shortage of is action, with swiftly moving material and sharp shifts and changes of gear grabbing you each time you start to feel the least bit comfortable with the idiom.
Owen Slade’s tuba playing is superbly expressive and deeply sonorous in The Cry of Anubis, and The Hallé and Ryan Wigglesworth do a cracking job with each of these magnificent but demanding scores. The sound engineering is also a remarkable achievement, creating a big sonic canvas while managing to capture plenty of detail at the same time. The distinctive cover art is by Adam Birtwistle, and plaudits go to the NMC label for their fulsome booklet content.
Dominy Clements






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