Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003) [24:14]
Three Latin Motets from ‘The Last Supper’ (1999) [9:57]
Carmen Paschale (1965) [5:50]
Lullaby (2006) [2:08]
On the Sheer Threshold of the Night (1980) [13:17]
The Moth Requiem (2012) [18:32]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Singers
Nash Ensemble/Nicholas Kok
rec. 20-22 September 2012 and 9 January 2013, BBC Studios Maida Vale

The music of Harrison Birtwistle can be tough to ‘crack’, and the addition of choral singing is by no means a route towards a more compromising musical passport to his expressive world. This superbly performed and produced programme begins with The Ring Dance of the Nazerene, which takes a gospel story from the Last Supper, combining the ritual associations of circular dance with the words of Jesus and his disciples interpreted by long-term collaborator David Harsent. Drums and stabbing notes from wind instruments compliment and add spice to the often angular and confrontational material delivered by the choir. This is about as far removed from comforting tales of resurrection or transports of ecstasy as you can get. We are pushed about by the music and made to take orders from the text: “By the word / I challenged the world. In the world / I proved the word. To understand what I was / you must hear my hymn. To know what I shall become / you must live in dreams.”
The Ring Dance of the Nazarene has terrific impact but would be hard to define as attractive. Its bony edginess contrasts with the Three Latin Motets, which use the distance and relative abstraction of the Latin language and more gentle a capella contours to create a more timeless atmosphere. John Fallas in his booklet notes suggests that the style for these pieces is, “if not strictly polyphonic seems designed to evoke the aura of Renaissance sacred music.” Carmen Paschale is the earliest composed of these works, including the addition of a solo flute to point out the Nightingale in the text - played here with her customary Úlan by Philippa Davies. The antique nature of this Easter poem allows for a piece which builds into something of remarkable intensity, from which we can climb down to the female voices performing the little Lullaby.
On the Sheer Threshold of the Night is another work which delves into early texts, in this case a Medieval lyric which takes us into familiar Birtwistle territory, that of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice. There is something about this subject which brings out the best in Birtwistle, and the vocal layers and chilling atmosphere of this piece - including some remarkable solo soprano lines - make it one of the more impressive on this CD.
The Moth Requiem is the newest work here, with an unusual setting of twelve female voices, three harps and alto flute. The text, from poetry by Robin Blaser, has as its starting point the strange nocturnal sound of a moth trapped inside a piano, the harps an ideal vehicle for the unearthly beating and thrumming which would emerge in such circumstances. A list of the Latin names of moths is used as a significant chunk of the piece - contrasting directness of expression with curatorial monumentality.
As mentioned at the start of this review, few of us are likely to take the experience of this programme as an easy ride, but neither should we run scared of it. This is the kind of music which demands concentration and rewards study. Birtwistle doesn’t make music for enjoying while immersed in a fragrant and steamy bubble-bath, but the substance and integrity of his language and messages are unmistakable and significant. With performances and recording as good as this we can be grateful for his giant presence in today's musical world.
Dominy Clements

And another review ... Harrison Birtwistle celebrates his eightieth birthday this year (2014), and fifty years of composing. He has always been concerned with re-interpreting, re-inventing, re-presenting themes, tropes and ideas from the past, familiar experiences and concerns. Others' rituals, memories and solutions colour much of his music in a very English way. From (Greek) myth to Paganism and pre-Christian beliefs, Birtwistle invites us to look at the often raw and hard-to-manage worlds of inner imagination, memory and loss. He sometimes makes the experience memorable by using familiar genres and methods, musical styles and references.

This excellent CD from Signum is produced in association with BBC Radio 3; it's encouraging to see the once-great — but now seriously declined — station doing something original and appropriate for what was once the Envy of the World. The BBC Singers, Nash Ensemble and soloists conducted by Nicholas Kok present six choral pieces. While not necessarily designed and assembled specifically to represent Birtwistle's work in the area, these could happily serve as an introduction to it - especially for those more familiar with the composer's symphonic work. Indeed it could stand for something of a summation of the composer's achievement so far.

Significantly, Kok has the singers work in close tandem with instrumentalists. At times the blend of sound, where the vocal overlaps precisely and intimately with the wind instruments in particular, is striking. At all times the two groups truly do the intricacies of all of Birtwistle's music here proud.

The Ring Dance of the Nazarene [tr.1] is the longest work on this CD, and was written in 2003. It exhibits that important Birtwistle characteristic, their durchkomponiert nature, where sound, rhythm, texture and - in this case - words all combine to make a unified, strong, almost composite impression. The performers, though, never defeat or confound our ability to connect cleanly with the music. It remains clear and transparent in every component. Crescendo, large variations in dynamic, frequent rallentando and accelerando passages are typical of Birtwistle's sense of drama and impact on the listener. Here Kok and his forces handle them with great style.

The Moth Requiem itself [tr.8] is also a substantial work, at just over 18 minutes. It dates from 2012, and so is the most recent composition here. It's the most varied, complex and intricate too. Written for sopranos (12), flute and three harps, it has many Birtwistlian hallmarks: Robin Blaser wrote a poem in the early 1960s about his discovery of what was making an unusual noise - a moth trapped in his piano. This evokes in Birtwistle a host of emotions and resonances. Chief amongst them is a variety of losses: of the many species of moth nearing extinction, or extinct; of the mystery because the poet did not know what was causing the phenomenon; of the sound as the insect had to stop; of some of the symbolism of the moth; loss of memory when memory is yet also the only way to (re)create the otherwise unseen and unexperienced. Then there’s loss of the past in general. The singing employs hocket-like techniques at various points, reminiscent of Machaut and his contemporaries.

If this is in some ways typical of Birtwistle's best and latest thinking about words and music, we are in good hands. If the levels of engagement and interpretative insight available on this CD from the BBC Singers and instrumental soloists too, we are fortunate indeed.

On the Sheer Threshold of Night [tr.7] was written in 1980 and is a work full of contrasts too; chiefly of dynamic. The choir is divided throughout, four each of sopranos, altos, tenors and bases to tell the Orpheus myth — which has long fascinated Birtwistle — in the version by Boethius. The work is highly dramatic with its crucial peripeteia (turning point). The style of choral singing which Kok elicits from the BBC Singers in all the works on this CD is perhaps at its most expressive in this piece. It's a practised, unified, yet well-conceived style of singing which suggests vividly that there is a multiplicity of depths and breadths to Birtwistle's subject matter - even in the theme of Orpheus. The experience of the Singers means that we are never 'hammered'; nor do we feel undue pressure to respond in any one way as opposed to another. Quite an achievement.

Carmen Paschale [tr.5] is the earliest work, dating from 1965; it's more declamatory in style than the other pieces on this CD. It is redolent of the oratory of Easter and alludes to the season by using bird-like sound effects, and the flute which Birtwistle originally intended. The choir sings in unison for the most part, adding to the strength of the religious conviction to which the composer so typically alludes without necessarily endorsing it explicitly. Carmen Paschale also contrasts directly with Lullaby [tr.6], from 2006, the shortest piece here. Lullaby is gentle and reminds us, perhaps, of analogous pieces written by contemporary, Peter Maxwell Davies. Its brevity and sense of peace are entirely appropriate for the genre.

The Three Latin Motets, for chorus from the opera The Last Supper [trs. 2-4] are perhaps the most compact of the works here. Dating from 1999, they compress huge ranges of emotion and insight into brief, almost miniature (Webern-like) movements of around three minutes each. Unlike Webern, though, they are far from seeming fragmentary. More sustained ideas act not so much as contrasts with the insistent and slowly progressing impetus that characterises much of Birtwistle's music of this time. Rather, they support and reinforce the way he has chosen to have text and music work together.

The singing of the choir is impeccable from first to last. Its singers strike a tone that presents Birtwistle's work with respect. They offer an appreciation that commends his music to us as established and of great achievement - yet without metaphorically 'shouting', without feeling a need to advocate it.

The recordings were made over the winter of 2012/13 at the BBC's Maida Vale studios. This acoustic is lively and responsive to the many blends of voice and ensemble which Birtwistle needs and builds. The booklet that comes with the single almost an hour-and-a-quarter long CD contains just the right amount of description of Birtwistle's composing life and priorities. These pieces are placed in context and background given on the performers and full texts are provided. If you're an enthusiast for this, one of the most important living British composers, you cannot afford to miss this CD; these pieces here enjoy only available recordings anyway. They are performed with great trenchancy and empathy with the idiom. As an introduction to this varied corner of the equally varied work of Birtwistle, the CD also makes a welcome addition.

Mark Sealey

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