Among a number of events marking the forthcoming 80th-birthday of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, it is good that Earth Dances (1986) merits revival. Its emergence fairly coincided with the composer’s move to the forefront of new music in the UK, chalking up a number of performances over the next decade, and has had three commercial recordings – by Peter Eötvös, Christoph von Dohnányi and Pierre Boulez, and Sir Simon Rattle has also left his imprimatur – joined now by Daniel Harding who, together with the London Symphony Orchestra, tackled its challenges head on.
Not the least challenge of this work is that, unlike the earlier The Triumph of Time, Earth Dances has no defining climax as part of its structure. Initially exploding into existence and finally receding into silence, its trajectory is one of a constant intensifying then subsiding of activity, and it was to Harding’s credit that these relative peaks and plateaux were themselves set within the context of a gradual yet inexorable momentum as was amply sustained across the 40-minute whole: vital in a piece whose overall rhythmic profile is so intricate and multi-layered that any but the most incisively articulated rendering is liable to sell short its granitic power. Steering a confident and focussed course, Harding palpably had its measure and was abetted by an assured response from the LSO, more than equal to the forceful though never wantonly aggressive modernism of its expression. The concentration then response of those present suggested that Earth Dances is still well able to leave its mark.
Whereas Birtwistle in 1986 had been on the threshold of international success, Brahms in 1858 was still struggling to make his mark – not that the First Piano Concerto was intended to make things easy for an audience unprepared for so symphonically cohesive an approach to the genre. It was this quality that came through in this performance, with Paul Lewis contributing pianism of no mean impetus but also a finesse which made explicit the work’s formal elaboration. That said, Harding’s take on the Maestoso’s trenchant initial tutti verged on the portentous. Added to this was a tendency to tone down rhetoric in such as the development and coda – so making this most demonstrative of movements less than the sum of its parts. There was little to fault in an Adagio where repose and trepidation were eloquently as one, while Lewis’s incision gave the finale an impetus that was sustained through to the affirmative closing bars.
Overall, then, this was a reading of the Brahms that absorbed and sometimes provoked if without galvanising one into hearing the work afresh. It certainly made for an instructive juxtaposition with the Birtwistle, and while one suspects that the latter’s music will remain near the periphery of the repertoire, this says more about its relative stagnation than about individual pieces per se
. Undeniable is the comparable impact these works are capable of making.