Birtwistle
Pulse Shadows (1996) – Meditations on Paul Celan for soprano, string quartet and ensemble

Fantasia 1 *
Thread suns
Frieze I *
White and Light
Fantasia 2 *
Psalm
Fantasia 3 *
With Letter and Clock
Frieze 2 *
An Eye, open
Fantasia 4 *
Todtnauberg
Frieze 3 *
Tenebrae
Fantasia 5 *
Night
Todesfuge – Frieze 4 *
Give the Word
Arditti Quartet *

Claron McFadden (soprano)

Nash Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw
CD No: TELDEC 3984-26867-2
Duration: 64 minutes
Reviewed: May 2002
It seems typical of Harrison Birtwistle’s compositions that Pulse Shadows should have organically grown from two disparate works – a Paul Celan setting for the Mary Weigold songbook project instigated by John Woolrich (White and Light, from 1989, scored for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello and double bass), and a string quartet movement (Frieze I) written for Alfred Schlee’s 90th-birthday and premièred by the Ardittis in 1991.
Birtwistle returned to each format to build up more settings and movements. Celan’s Night and Tenebrae (as ever in Michael Hamburger’s translations) were composed in August 1992, while three more quartet movements appeared in 1993, commissioned for the then cultural capital, Antwerp (Frieze II and two Fantasias). The South Bank, in collaboration, commissioned the other quartet movements for the Ardittis in 1996, while the remaining six Celan settings had gradually been amassing: With Letter and Clock composed for Birtwistle’s inauguration as Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at London’s King’s College in 1994; Todtnauberg commissioned by the BBC as part of Nicholas Kenyon’s extensive “Fairest Isle” year-long season in 1995; An Eye, for Paul Sacher’s 90th, and Give the Word both date from 1996, the same year that the final two Celan settings were commissioned by the City of Witten for the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik.
The première of what Birtwistle now considered an 18-section work took place in Witten on 28 April 1996 with the soprano Claudia Barainsky, Klangforum Wien conducted by Johannes Kalitzke and the Arditti Quartet, the songs given in the original German, except Todtnauberg which can be performed in both English and German; when the cycle is sung in German, this song has the English text sung with the German spoken by the soloist, and vice versa. On this CD – the Arditti’s members and those of the Nash Ensemble not listed, which seems rather shabby treatment of expert performers – the songs are sung in English with Todtnauberg sung in German. (Celan, Romanian-Jewish and “culturally French”, wrote in German.)
This lengthy explanation will indicate some of the extra-musical complexities encompassed by this multi-faceted score, and the uniqueness of the piece is further enhanced by Birtwistle’s free hand to performers to choose which order. Yet the placement of the 18 individual works on this disc seems to have won accepted favour. It certainly offers contrast between the string quartet movements and the songs – if the solely instrumental parts are frenetic (as in the pulse-laden opening Fantasia 1) then the paired song is subtle and poignant (here Thread suns). Paul Celan was recently voted one of the top 100 authors, and his poetry – offering glosses on the horror of the holocaust – is concise, dense and elliptical: expressionism pared down to fragmentary phrases. Certain poems Birtwistle felt too personal to set, but those that he has chosen, even if not easily revealing their meaning, are very powerful – especially Tenebrae with its shocking imagery of blood and prayer.
What is in no doubt is that each listener will find their own meaning in the words and music, and this disc boasts definitive performances from its respective ensembles. It is to be hoped that a version sung in German will be issued.
This is a CD that I have no option but to go back to again and again; constantly fascinating, musically convincing, powerfully moving and an ideal counterpart to Decca’s recent Birtwistle twofer collection (468 804-2). Birtwistle’s recorded output of intimate chamber and vocal works may be small, but Pulse Shadows proves that his music in these genres is as equally distinctive and satisfying as his larger canvasses.

 

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