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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934)
Chamber Music
Three Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998) [4:26]
Trio (2011) [16:01]
Bogenstrich: Meditations on a poem of Rilke (2006) [31:36]
Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (2000) [13:31]
Amy Freston (soprano); Roderick Williams (baritone)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin); Adrian Brendel (cello); Till Fellner (piano)
rec. Herkulesaal, Munich, August 2011. DDD
ECM NEW SERIES 2253 (4765050) [65:34]

I remember well the first time I heard a work by Birtwistle. In 1965 I was just at the beginning of my student life when I went to the first performance of Tragoedia, a piece that turned out to be the first of many landmarks in Birtwistle’s career. Although I have heard most of his major works since then, I have never encountered any of the pieces on this new disc from ECM, released in time for the composer’s 80th birthday. So for me it is very welcome especially when the items are so well performed and recorded as they are here.
 
The sinewy melodic lines of the cello and soprano in the first of the three settings of Lorine Niedecker are exquisitely performed by Amy Freston and Adrian Brendel. In this and in numbers 2 and 3, Birtwistle’s beautifully shaped contours are presented in perfect and equal balance between voice and instrument. I am sure that Elliott Carter must have been very pleased with this 90th birthday tribute from Birtwistle in 1998.
 
The remaining nine songs were composed two years later in 2000 for the Nash Ensemble. The first of these is delivered by Amy Freston with a pure and lovely tone as well as perfect intonation, accompanied by a gentle, pizzicato cello. The second song is similarly evocative, so Freston’s very dramatic attack on the last word sun really makes its mark. There is much contrast in the painting of the words by the two performers. Meticulously detailed dynamics, articulation, modes of attack, phrasing and expression are also features of the fine cello playing. The songs are very brief and I am reminded of Webern, a hero of Birtwistle. The final song is quite moving. Again Amy Freston sings with a beautiful tone, a different quality than in the first song, quieter but still rich and also brooding to suit the sombre text.
 
The Trio begins with aggressive little phrases from the piano answered by the violin and cello which often play as a duo whilst the piano uses different, complementary material. Soon we hear flowing and attractive melodic lines but always with an undercurrent of mystery and suspense. This fairly extensive single-movement work has some of the concentration of thought we experience in Webern, and Birtwistle’s piece grows organically using many motivic ideas and patterns as well as melodic lines. Lisa Batiashvili on violin, Adrian Brendel on cello and the pianist Till Fellner exploit to the full the expressive possibilities of this work in terms of melody, rhythm, dynamics and articulation. The three players expertly build their climaxes and fall to points of repose together as one and I feel certain that so much rehearsal and preparation time must have been allocated to achieve a performance of this quality. As in the first piece on this disc, the recorded balance is excellent.
 
Bogenstrich for baritone, cello and piano is in five sections and the cycle grew from a piece originally written for Alfred Brendel’s 75th birthday. Full details of the work’s further developments are provided in Bayan Northcott’s admirable programme notes. Roderick Williams’s gentle and pure baritone weaves a delicate and beautifully nuanced counterpoint with Till Fellner’s piano in Liebes-lied 1 and with Adrian Brendel’s cello in Liebes-Lied 2 which concludes the work. These are very evocative performance indeed. Once again there are reminiscences of the sparse textures of Webern, but this music is altogether more romantic in mood thanks to the expressive qualities inherent in the music realised to the full in the performance. Lieder ohne Worte and Variationen which follow consist of short melodic or rhythmic fragments, sometimes gentle sometimes quite aggressive, shared between cello and piano. Wie eine Fuga is very different. It is fast and furious, excitingly and virtuosically performed by the two instrumentalists, but also with great subtlety and attention to detail.
 
This is an excellent addition to the Birtwistle discography. The performances couldn’t be bettered and the recorded sound and balance are superb.
 
Geoffrey Molyneux