Bach arr. Birtwistle
Three Cantata Arias
Birtwistle
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus *
Linoi
Orpheus Elegies [UK premiere of complete work]
Shiu
Quartet Desire [World premiere]

Endymion:
Iain Farrington (piano)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
Helen Tunstall (harp)
Mark van de Weil (clarinets)

Claire Booth (soprano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
Kawai Shiu (conductor) *
Commentators on contemporary music have often seen the 1980s as a watershed in composers’ approach to their craft. Identifying the onset of an attitude of cultural pluralism loosely dubbed ‘post-modern’, they note as characteristic of the decade the freeing-up of creativity for a generation of composers young enough to escape the strictures of high modernism.
What’s equally important, though much less frequently remarked, is the effect of this relaxation on those more senior composers who had lived through and worked under that earlier regime of modernist perfectionism. While Ligeti and Boulez have been somewhat blocked by the casting into doubt of ‘the single way forward’ and the new availability of options, some of their colleagues in the avant-garde have thrived. Elliott Carter, once under exclusive contract to the five-yearly masterpiece, has become prolific in an extraordinary Indian summer unprecedented in the history of Western music. Harrison Birtwistle likewise, who twenty years ago could be said by Michael Hall to be the hedgehog (“who knows one big thing”) to Peter Maxwell Davies’s fox (who devours everything), has expanded, speeded up, and diversified his production, until today he is not only “our leading composer” – to quote the publicity for the South Bank Centre’s festival marking his seventieth birthday – but a prolific fulfiller of prestigious commissions from around the world.
Everyone knows about Birtwistle, as packed audiences for this festival will no doubt attest, and knows that he is the silent, sullen ‘great original’ of British music – everyone knows, because his much-vaunted recalcitrance is curiously amenable to the publicity machine that powers the world of contemporary music today. “Interviewing Birtwistle,” Paul Griffiths wrote in 1985, “is like trying to mate pandas.” The paradox is that, in his silence, his word-shyness about his music, he actually puts into circulation so much discourse about it. The way his music deals in myths and rituals, retells stories, circles back round to its beginnings, and realises timelessness in time, is itself the subject of a myth endlessly paraded by musicologists, critics, and those who write essays in concert programmes.
The need is for an angle that escapes that authorial control (a control which is the more pervasive for its pretended indifference). Those of us who find derivations more interesting than origins, history more intriguing than pre-history, can find pleasure in the way Birtwistle’s oeuvre from 1984 seemed immediately to gainsay Hall’s neat characterisation, branching out from and multiplying the “single organising principle” of elaborated monody in new instrumental and orchestral works of sometimes extraordinary richness – Earth Dances, Secret Theatre – while also consolidating its composer’s pre-eminence in the opera house and taking some unexpected new directions: most notably, a new vein of tender lyricism and a sizeable body of vocal music for the concert hall (several song sets, including the major statement of Pulse Shadows, nine settings of Celan interwoven with tightly expressive miniatures for string quartet). The richness comes from the possibility of an extended palette made to look like potential mined; the risk is a loss of focus.
35 years ago, the urgent drive to originality brought forth some of Birtwistle’s best, most striking inspirations, and we heard two of them in the first half of this evening’s concert. Claire Booth, the soprano of the moment, whose star will surely continue to rise over the years to come, led Nenia, a vivid rendering of Orpheus’s loss of Euridice and of his own fate, torn apart by the Maenads. Its instrumental preoccupations – with low to middle clarinet timbres and with the sonic possibilities of the inside of the piano – were pre-echoed in Linoi, in which a related myth, of how Orpheus’s brother Linus invented melody and was killed by jealous Apollo, again allows the music to simulate origination, growth and change.
Some creative artists get better and better with age. Some hit late middle age running, bursting to get things said as they race against mortality. Birtwistle strikes me more, these days, as an ensconced professional, resting on his laurels, churning out commission after mediocre commission. No young composer could afford to risk putting an audience through 40 minutes of dreary oboe and harp duets. These formed the foundation for Orpheus Elegies, the supposed centrepiece of this celebratory concert: a set of twenty-six instrumental commentaries on Rilke’s poems, with Endymion stalwarts Melinda Maxwell and Helen Tunstall joined in six of the pieces by Andrew Watts’s countertenor, and in others by a pair of metronomes dictating parallel tempos. Even this familiar Birtwistle device was achieved lazily, without magic, and the work lacked the formal richness and pungently expressive lyricism of Pulse Shadows.
Meanwhile, three Bach cantata arias with accompaniments arranged by Birtwistle united the performing forces of the concert, and Kawai Shiu’s weighty, closely argued Quartet Desire paid birthday tribute.
To become prolific in old age, a composer needs a secure technical foundation and unerring judgement. Birtwistle, always the “genius without talent”, seems increasingly apt to miscalculate the expressive weight and in particular the length of new works. I had heard good reports of Elegies after a partial performance in Cheltenham. In an evocative acoustic and with a well-chosen selection from the total number, I can imagine a better result. But the doubts have been cast. Theseus Game too, due for its third London outing in a year during Birtwistle Games, is grey, overlong, and makes considerably less than the most of its two-conductor mise-en-scene. In this summer’s Almeida Festival I enjoyed The Io Passion’s gentle expressiveness and echoes of earlier works, but on further hearings was bothered by the piece’s self-indulgence.
At 70, Birtwistle looks less like a master at work than he did on comparable anniversaries ten or twenty years ago. But these endless birthday celebrations do no one any good. Eminent septuagenarian, professor emeritus, Companion of Honour, Birtwistle has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Elsewhere, without clamour, others go on quietly, producing good work.

 

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