After the previous Peter Maxwell Davies portrait (PSM3), this last of the season Proms Saturday Matinee was devoted to Harrison Birtwistle – three works written consecutively around the turn of the 1970s and a decisive turning-point, in certain respects, for this most obdurate of composers.
Interesting, too, in that the main works were the first two in what has become a lengthy series of commissions from the London Sinfonietta. Certainly no composer could have made more unequivocal a debut than with Verses for Ensembles (1969) – the piece that brings to a head Birtwistle’s marshalling of elements derived from Varèse, Messiaen and Tippett in music for wind and percussion whose cumulative impact is (paradoxically?) achieved through a hieratic succession of tuttis and solos: its latter half essentially the intensified elaboration of the first, with a coda such as propels the music to its orgiastic close. Later works may have refined its secretively theatrical aspect yet without equalling its sheer impact – not least when rendered with the visceral power of this performance from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Oliver Knussen.
The onset of the 1970s saw a preoccupation with the Orpheus myth which was to dominate Birtwistle’s creativity over the ensuing decade and periodically thereafter. While Meridian (1971) is not specifically an ‘orphic’ work, the poems (by the Elizabethan writers Thomas Wyatt and Christopher Logue) are concerned with song, as both a means of communication and as an artistic act in itself, and has demonstrable links to the Orpheus concept; embodied in a hybrid of cantata and scena, with some of the composer’s most alluring and sensuous writing up to that point. Hilary Summers handled the high-flown eloquence of the solo part with aplomb, while the female voices of Exaudi were finely integrated into an instrumental texture whose disembodied expression is grounded within the restless contours of a solo cello.
Between the two works, Dinah and Nick’s Love Song (1970) weaved a limpid spell via its gentle exchanges of harp with off-stage oboes and cor anglais in a piece that, as Birtwistle himself recalled, was in essence a “line drawing” for the larger piece that followed. It made for a serene interlude between works of comparable yet very differently expressed intensity, with the whole concert a vindication of Knussen’s concern that these innovative pieces not be overlooked during the composer’s 80th-birthday year. Long may such hearings continue.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms