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‘Out of the Labyrinth’ - Elias and Birtwistle: Theseus Ensemble, Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London, 5.11.2010 (MB)

Brian Elias – Geranos

Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Verses for Ensembles

Launched in April, with a concert programming Ligeti’s Piano Concerto and Boulez’s Dérive 2, the Theseus Ensemble, ‘dedicated to the exploration of the labyrinths of modern music, and to sharing our discoveries with our audiences,’ now turned its attention to two English composers: Brian Elias and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Skilful programming on the part of founder and conductor, Geoffrey Paterson revealed a certain post-Stravinskian kinship in these two ensemble pieces, without prejudice to each composer’s individual voice. Paterson’s spoken introductions to both works, along with brief musical excerpts from the players, were clear, engaging guides to what one might profitably listen out for, but such was the high standard of performance that one could hardly have failed to sit up and listen.

Elias’s 1985 Geranos was written for the Fires of London. Like so much of Birtwistle’s music, there is an audible inspiration of archaic Greece. Here, Elias’s interest in ancient metrical feet – dactylic, anapæstic, bacchic, and so on – provides a basis for the work’s generative rhythmical cells; such was made clear both by Paterson’s introduction and by the performance itself. The word ‘geranos,’ Paterson’s programme note explained, has two meanings: when the stress falls upon the final syllable, it connotes a dance imitating the flight of cranes in line; when falling upon the first, it refers to Theseus’s dance to celebrate the rescue of seven youths and seven maidens from the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Elias scores this piece of three interconnected movements for six players: piano, piccolo/flute/alto flute, violin/viola, E-flat clarinet/bass clarinet, and percussion. Each of these players had a chance, well taken, to shine in solo and ensemble.

Following a slow introduction, in which Christopher White (piano) span a pregnant single line – a labyrinthine thread, perhaps? – which led us into an almost impressionistic haze of instrumental response, the rhythmically driven character of the first movement fully revealed itself. Jonathan Rees’s early ecstatic cello solo incited the others; Elias’s post-Stravinskian soundworld was soon fully established. Flights of fantasy from piccolo and percussion proved orientally suggestive. The slow, second movement put one in mind of a processional, its growth in intensity owed as much to the percussion as to the leading figure of the E-flat clarinet (Sarah Thurlow), evocative of the mournful antique aulos gingras. The transition to the final movement seemed especially well handled, resulting in the alternation of various ‘feet’ in a generative, almost Dionysian frenzy. There were, however, more phantasmagorical sections too, in which the players created a sense of slowed, but not quite suspended animation. Throughout the ritual, twists and turns clearly unfolded, until the concluding near-stasis – written before such things became wearisomely popular – of tuned percussion.

As a prelude to the performance of Birtwistle’s classic Verses for Ensembles (1986-9), Paterson and his players took us through the seven types of music present in the work: audible signposts, though as Paterson admitted, the delineation is so clear in Birtwistle’s writing, that it would be well-nigh impossible not to register their character. The visual-dramatic aid of players moving around the stage assists in that respect too, of course. Material was, throughout, clearly but meaningfully delineated, whether in introduction or performance.

Immediately, we were thrust into a violent soundworld, pulsating with drama both visceral and perspectival: unmistakeably Birtwistle. Hard-edged – have glockenspiels ever sounded more so? – and yet with moments of true tenderness, for instance from Alec Frank-Gemmill’s fine French horn, the character of this world was finely judged. Trumpet fanfares from Huw Morgan and Dimitrios Gkogkas harked back to Monteverdi and beyond, the spatial dimension contributing to the impression of Gabrielian ghosts at the modernistic feast – and how greatly so much music of this period is influenced by the Venetian example: think, for instance, of Stockhausen. The controlled riot of percussion (three players here: Stephen Burke, Oliver Lowe, and Scott Wilson) suggested an archaic threefold – or more – intensification of Messiaen’s rhythmic explorations, whilst all the time the hieratic example of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and, of course, The Rite of Spring incited. Rhythmic precision and definition are crucial in such respects; the Theseus Ensemble succeeded triumphantly in imparting them. At least as impressive, however, was the true sense the performance instilled of geography to the work’s ‘location’. As so often with Birtwistle, we are engaged in audition of differing perspectives upon different ‘places’, their characters sometimes variant – as in the three-line woodwind stanzas – and sometimes invariant. Secret Theatre seemed to beckon, inescapably; the privilege afforded by this fine performance.

Mark Berry

The Theseus Ensemble’s next performance will be at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House on 14 February 2011, at 1 p.m. George Benjamin’s Upon Silence will preface Boulez’s iconic Le marteau sans maître. Further information concerning the ensemble may be found at


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