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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934)
Angel Fighter for tenor, counter-tenor, chamber chorus, and instrumental ensemble (2010) [31:09]
In Broken Images for mixed ensemble (2011-12) [18:21]
Virelai (Sus une fontayne) for ensemble of 12 players (2008) [3:55]
Andrew Watts (counter-tenor), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
BBC Singers (Angel Fighter)
London Sinfonietta/David Atherton.
rec. live, 20 August 2011, Cadogan Hall, London, UK (Angel Fighter); 24 May 2012, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK (In Broken Images); 5 December 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK (Virelai).
NMC D211 [53:36]

Birtwistle’s Angel Fighter was commissioned for the Bach Festival in Leipzig, and was given its first performance in Bach’s Thomaskirche on 13 June 2010. This recording was made live by the BBC the following year. The work is written for chamber chorus, tenor, counter-tenor and instrumental ensemble. Pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and bass trombones (various doublings expand the ranges and colours available), harp and a small string band. There is no percussion, but each member of the small chorus — 24 or 36 singers says the score — is to be given a pair of claves, and there are six guiros, the notched hollow gourds that make a ratcheting sound when stroked with a stick. Jacob is sung by the tenor and the Angel by the counter-tenor.

The libretto by Stephen Plaice — who worked with the composer on The Io Passion — is based on a strange, symbolic and dramatic episode from Genesis 32: 22-30 in which Jacob is returning to his homeland seeking reconciliation with his brother Esau, whose inheritance he stole many years before. In the Old Testament source Jacob spends a fearful night by the brook Jabbok, where “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day”. The Bible does not use the word 'angel' here but the man’s words soon make him seem to be God or His messenger. In the fight Jacob will not relinquish his grasp on the Angel, even though day dawns, but demands a blessing. The Angel asks Jacob his name, on learning which the Angel says “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou has power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” The Angel declines Jacob’s request to give his own name but confers the requested blessing. The biblical passage ends: “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Plaice’s libretto is true to all this, but makes it much less elusive, and more concrete and dramatic. Thus this work which Wagner-like deploys the mythic tropes of naming, re-naming, and name-witholding, actually begins with an episode of name-calling, as the chorus representing his resentful people (or his own conscience), traduce Jacob as ‘seducer’, ‘deserter’, ‘appeaser’, ‘coward’ and ‘faker’. Jacob enters on the note E (a Birtwistle fingerprint), as does Peter Grimes in the pub, another visionary set apart from those around him. The chorus withdraws when Jacob tells them “Yahweh wishes to speak to me alone”. His ensuing aria pleads “Yahweh give me a sign” and the Angel enters, initially - like a modernist Cio-Cio-San - from a distance and with a halo of female voices, but made otherworldly by the androgynous sound of the counter-tenor voice. The Angel speaks at first in Enochian, the original and lost angelic language 'discovered' by the 16th century occultist, John Dee. Jacob calls on “Great Father Enoch” to translate, and is then able to understand the speech of the Angel.

The central and very exciting action is the fight, which is a formal wrestling match. There is nothing otherworldly about this ritualized hand-to-hand combat, for which the Angel gives oddly explicit instructions – “Oil yourself! Lay hold! Three falls or a submission!” The instrumental groups within the ensemble underline every blow in cut-and-thrust writing. The chorus joins in — and slaps those claves — as the Angel gains two falls, and fiercely punctuates the climax as they protest against the Angel’s foul play. The Angel renames Jacob as Israel, and then declines to give his own name, in an aria for the counter-tenor to balance that given near the beginning to the tenor. Two trumpets, placed behind the audience, call the Angel back to heaven. This superb work closes in choral splendour as the people and Jacob sing “Hear O Israel” in an ecstatic blend of brazen voices and vocal brass.

The performance throughout is very involving, the outstanding BBC singers rising to the challenge of some virtuoso demands. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts sings, well, like an angel. If tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sounds under strain at times, it is never more so than is appropriate for a man in extremis, a figure engaged in a struggle with the divine. The London Sinfonietta and David Atherton roll back the years to the glory days of the 1970s when they often brought us expert interpretations of the most exciting new music. The recording is very good too, even if the live conditions prevent the spatial effects of the Angel’s entry and the trumpet calls near the end from being ideally atmospheric; the trumpets sound rather close in the mix in fact.

Above all the piece itself is an undoubted success, a new English mini-opera like Holst’s Savitri or dramatic scena like Britten’s Phaedra. Perhaps Plaice and Birtwistle will go on and make this the centre-piece of a full-length opera, Jacob and Esau. With his Angel Fighter, Birtwistle has provided a new recruit to the company of English music’s angels, if a very different one from the consoling examples in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius or the Abraham and Isaac setting in Britten’s War Requiem. “Jeder Engel ist schrecklich” (“Every angel is terrifying”) said Rilke opening his second Duino Elegy, and Birtwistle’s and Plaice’s angel is the Old Testament at its most uncompromisingly fierce. Jonathan Cross in his book on the composer speaks of his score for The Oresteia as having ”the quality of being utterly modern yet … as ancient as the text itself”, and so it is here.

In Broken Images, whose title comes from a poem of Robert Graves, is a purely instrumental work and for an instrumental ensemble similar to that of Angel Fighter, with three groups of percussion replacing the horns. One source for the work is Gabrieli's multi-group canzonas. The composer splits the ensemble into four groups (woodwind, brass, strings and percussion) and the score indicates their relative physical locations. All that is rather lost in a two-channel stereo – as with other Birtwistle pieces the organising principles are clearer when you see the piece live but oh for a recording company that really uses the multi-channel format in music like this ... or in Gabrieli for that matter. Nonetheless from the opening brass exchanges this is still a button-holing sound, from composer, players and recording engineers. The groups break up and reform into different combinations as they build to a climax, after which the forces thin out as the work evaporates into silence.

On the Boosey & Hawkes website there is a nice short video of Birtwistle, in which — once he has finished showing off his tomato plants grown from seed — he mentions his fascination with the music of the remote past. The starting point of the final item on the disc is from some way back in the musical past, as Virelai (Sus une fontayne), is an enchanting and intricate realisation of the piece of that title by Johannes Ciconia, who flourished in the late Middle Ages. The original song is recognisably retained throughout even through the metrical intricacies and what Paul Griffiths in his excellent booklet note calls “Birtwistle’s precisely all-over-the-place orchestration.”

This is an essential Birtwistle disc, and NMC and the London Sinfonietta once again place us in their debt with a disc of his compelling new music. In fact its contrasting elements make for an enjoyable short Birtwistle concert, especially if the works are played in the reverse order they appear on the disc. Boosey & Hawkes have freely viewable online scores of both the larger items on their website – though I recommend using a device with a large screen, as the scores have too many staves for a mini-tablet. The text of Angel Fighter is given in the CD booklet – and in both English and Enochian. Though the latter is effectively translated by the Angel himself for those of us who, like Jacob, are unversed in the angelic tongue.

Roy Westbrook

Editor's Note
I note in passing that Martin Anderson's label Toccata Classics has just released a CD (TOCC0281) of Birtwistle's songs (1970-2006) in which the soprano soloist with various configurations of instrumental ensemble is Alice Rossi. Readers may also be interested in a Lyrita CD of music by Birtwistle.



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