Written by: Nick Breckenfield
Sir Harrison Birtwistle is, unequivocally, the doyen of British composers; not as prolific as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle’s 1950s composer-colleague at the Royal Northern College of Music, but certainly more lauded and derided – in equal measure. Over the first months of 2001, as Birtwistle turns 67 (on 15 July), there has been a number of recent occasions to encounter the variety of Birtwistle’s output – on the stage, at concerts, on CD, and in the written word.
Consequently, this article has been a long time gestating, with the result that the more one would like to include the less one can say about individual performances or items. In the hope I might guide those yet to dip their toe into Birtwistle’s singular sound-world (and for those who already have), here are some thoughts and recommendations.
2. Exposition and Espousing
At the smallest event covered herein, in early March, at a concert given by the ever-enterprising Nash Ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle accepted the applause after a performance of The Hare and the Woman (not the world première of a new version as originally scheduled), by perambulating across the Purcell Room stage from the right and, meeting David Harsent in the middle, dragging his librettist off-stage to the left in one fluid movement. There was something effortlessly Birtwistlian about such a move – an inevitability about it that some take as crazed contemporary arrogance (which is why Birtwistle so often has been the butt of musical conservatives that stick their collective heads into the sand at the hearing of a discord to vainly seek the ’purity’ of a major triad), but may be more pertinently regarded as a man who is clear where he is going, and happy going there.
Birtwistle’s comment that it is not his fault that people dislike his music has often proved a red rag to a bull; yet his disarming honesty uncovers a universal – if unpalatable – truth, that, as a listener, one has to indulge a composer and not pre-judge music by its initial sounds. An open mind, dogmatic preconceptions jettisoned, is what is required. A simple question ensues: can music actually harm you?Yes, if the volume is too high (I remember a concert performance of Act II of Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus which came close to breaking my sister-in-law’s ear-drums!) – but that, frankly, is more a worry in the amplified world of pop, rock and rap.
What ’new’ music can do is hurt one’s sensibilities and lay bare your insecurities. It can all-too easily disorientate the listener and question long-held and cherished beliefs. When Berlioz’s teacher, Le Sueur, first heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony he was so disturbed that when he tried to put his hat on he was unable to find his head! The shock of the new also caused a furore at the première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, not least evidenced by Carl van Vechten’s comments that “the young man seated behind me in the box presently began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.”
3. Birtwistle – A Positive Statement
For those not blinded (or deafened) by fear of new sounds, the riches to be found in Birtwistle’s music are certainly worth exploring. There is much that shouldn’t scare anyone: listen to the delightful and subtle piano works on the new Galliard Ensemble CD, played by Richard Shaw – Berceuse de Jeanne, Sad Song and Oockooing Bird – which are no more demanding than Debussy’s Preludes. There’s plenty of humour too – the discords that punctuate Chorale from a Toy-Shop (on the same CD) are wicked in their implied revelry of childish non-conformity. I will not deny that some of Birtwistle’s music can be difficult to crack, but even if you don’t like it, it is difficult to argue that it is not true to itself. Of all contemporary composers, Birtwistle seems to me to have the most distinctive style. Much of that is to do with his consistent view of music as theatre, and it was in the theatre that I first heard his music.
4. Birtwistlian Development – Future Soundings
I was intrigued to hear in Birtwistle’s recent interview with John Tusa (BBC Radio 3, 1 July) that much of the acerbic percussion, clarinet and harp music used in Sir Peter Hall’s masked (and acclaimed) Oresteia at the National Theatre in the early 80s had been improvised (which answered a self-asked question as to why there had never been a suite made from the music: I am sure this would have worked well, away from, and without Tony Harrison’s ambitiously alliterative adaptation of Sophocles’s text to require broad Yorkshire accents. It was shortly afterwards that things began to move fast for Birtwistle. Secret Theatre was premièred and English National Opera took on the production of his massive opera, The Mask of Orpheus, with its enlarged wind, brass and percussion-based orchestra (no strings), invented language and electronics, two conductors – and, most importantly, three representations each of the main characters – Orpheus and Aristaeus as Man, Hero and Myth, with Euridice as Woman, Heroine and Myth. Also in 1986 came the premières of the chamber opera, Yan Tan Tethera (given by Opera Factory London, with the best sheep ever put on stage!), and Birtwistle’s longest orchestral work, Earth Dances.
Jump forward five years to Gawain, which made its visual and aural impact at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, before being revised (and shortened) for revivals in 1994. The Glyndebourne-commissioned, The Second Mrs Kong, also helped open Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s first season in the new Lewes opera-house that same year, and it has now been followed by The Last Supper, co-commissioned (Staatsoper, Berlin and London’s South Bank Centre), which finds its way into Glyndebourne Festival’s season this summer, having been given its UK première in the Touring Opera’s season last autumn.
Major orchestral scores were also commissioned. Panic, with its featured soloists, John Harle (saxophone) and Paul Clarvis (drum-kit), graced not only the Last Night of the Centenary Proms in 1995, but also seeped, by the miracle of mass-communication technology, into the cognisance of the millions watching world-wide on TV, eliciting one of the biggest uproars in the history of music-broadcasting by those affronted by something they refused point-blank to understand (and who, zealously, would not or could not entertain the perfectly reasonable idea that others actually liked it, so felt able to chastise the BBC for pandering to elitist tastes!). For the Chicago Symphony and an unlikely champion, Daniel Barenboim, Birtwistle wrote Exody; a further dark, nocturne-like work is in preparation for the end of Christoph von Dohnányi’s reign over The Cleveland Orchestra – is it too much to hope that it will be on the Clevelander’s tour repertoire when the Orchestra appears at the Barbican next June?
Recently, Birtwistle wrote Fanfare to open the Royal Festival Hall’s 50th-anniversary concert on 3 May. He has another new brass-based work planned for a late-night Prom; to be heard in tandem with the piece he wrote for the re-opening of Cleveland’s Severance Hall last year (it was originally called Severance Sonance 2000, but I note it has now lost its specific geographical reference) and the first live performance in the UK of the Latin motets used in The Last Supper – perhaps the single most beautiful piece of music in recent years. With the release, under the aegis of Decca, of a 2-CD set of Universal Classics’ Birtwistle back-catalogue, and the already mentioned Galliard Ensemble disc, there is no better time to investigate Birtwistle’s music.
5. A Recent Retrospective – (1) The Last Supper
The SBC a co-commissioner, the Queen Elizabeth Hall hosted a concert performance of The Last Supper on 26 January. Satisfyingly, it was a sell-out and warmly received.I don’t know how many of the audience had already seen it in Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production, directed by Martin Duncan. I was not particularly enamoured with its three acting areas – the first (the domain of Susan Bickley’s Ghost), in front of the orchestra, the second – with just three trestle tables – where the main action takes place, and finally an upper level which is unveiled thrice for us to see the tableau. However, my concern in the concert performance was that, with all twelve disciples on stage the whole time, it would be difficult for the uninitiated to gauge the build-up effortlessly created on stage where each of the disciples arrives separately, thus being able to make much more of an individual impact. Having said that, even with minimal recasting (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts taking over the role of Judas from Thomas Randle) there was no faulting the performance, led by the Jesus of William Dazeley and Susan Bickley, who colludes directly with the audience to “invite” the disciples to reconvene, and conductor Elgar Howarth.
Birtwistle, with Canadian librettist Robin Blaser, has found a particular resonance in the 2000th anniversary of Christianity. Taking the foundation of the Christian religion, the betrayal and passion of Christ, they conspire to bring back the disciples to explore the yawning gap between Christ’s teaching based on love and the horrors perpetrated by mankind in Christianity’s name. To that end, the disciples are shocked, but ultimately mollified by Judas’s presence and Jesus’s forgiveness of him. The cyclical element in this opera (one typical of Birtwistle) is Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet; and the opera is notable for the striking choral writing (on tape) in the three ’visions’. This is a profound and important work with a universally excellent cast. Even as early as this year, the references to ’2000 years since Christ’ may well date the libretto, but one fervently hopes that the universality of the message may withstand such problems.
6. A Recent Retrospective – (2) BBC Symphony concert
A couple of weeks later, on 15 February, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in its new Barbican home, continued its series of ’Composer Portraits’, with an extended concert (starting at 6.30 p.m. with the composer interviewed by Roger Wright) and included four major works, covering nearly three decades. From the 1970s came Melancolia I for clarinet, harp and two string orchestras, with the estimable Richard Hosford (the BBCSO’s principal clarinet) taking centre-stage. Written in 1976 for the Scottish National Orchestra’s ’Musica Viva’ series and Alan Hacker, this was Birtwistle’s first concertante work; the clarinet protagonist is supported by the harp in its slow and melancholic trajectory. The clarinet was Birtwistle’s own instrument (rather incongruously, perhaps, he remembers playing for local operetta productions as a boy, which may be the real key to his fascination with the stage) and the writing is both exploratory and characteristic. Dutch conductor Jac van Steen had the measure of this music, moulding the string accompaniment to form a sea of sound which clarinet and harp could either rest on or react to.
There followed Birtwistle’s most ambitious work for piano solo – and the most recent Birtwistle in this concert, having been premièred in 1998 – the fortuitously named Harrison’s Clocks. It is not to Birtwistle they belong, but to John Harrison who cracked the time-keeping quandary that had bedevilled centuries of mariners; Birtwistle, reading Dava Sobel’s Longitude, found his inspiration in the clocks themselves. He has created a five-movement work, with the odd-numbered movements inspired by ticking mechanisms (each described as ’scherzo’) and the second and fourth movements emanating from chiming devices (’trio’).
Typically, each of these movements start as if we had just come upon them, with the ruse that the sound is not determined by the player – the music could be in perpetual motion – but rather by our discovery of it. Also, like the trumpet concerto, Endless Parade (and indeed Satie’s Gymnopédies), one gets the impression that this music is similar – but each movement regards from a different angle. Nicholas Hodges revelled in the fiendish difficulties of the motivic digitations that propel Birtwistle’s music on.
The second half allowed us a chance to re-evaluate Panic, without the knee-jerk reaction of those millions that think that the Proms is just a jolly sing-a-long for one concert in mid-September. All the original combatants were brought together, save for Sir Andrew Davis. Panic is undeniably raw and raucous music, but it is in the spirit of the Greek god, Pan – half-man, half-goat – who was known for his wild spirit. Cue the roving alto saxophone of dapper John Harle, abetted by the ridiculously young-looking Paul Clarvis on drum-kit (roving because the soloists actually move to different positions at one point). Rather than be shocked by the din, we should embrace it both as a late 20th-century version of Strauss’s impish Till Eulenspiegel (composed exactly 100 years before Panic) and as a far better alternative to the mindless, repetitive, drug-related, beat-infested ’music’ that young people listen to nowadays.
Finally, a work that has become almost a BBC Symphony Orchestra party-piece, Earth Dances. Logistically complicated by one of the largest percussion sections you are ever likely to see (and a mighty squash on the restrictive Barbican stage), this 40-minute work was first heard in 1986 and has become a benchmark for British contemporary music. A decade-and-a-half on, there were some after-concert comments suggesting it had dated, but I suspect it will forever remain Birtwistle’s orchestral classic. It is a work that particularly elaborates Birtwistle’s interest in musical strata, rather than linear melody; it seems to me to be like a landscape that in essentials remains similar every time you encounter it but, in the way that different weather conditions can alter your view of a familiar location, allowing different things to emerge on each hearing.
7. Birtwistle to Buy
Earth Dances and Panic are two of the main works on Decca’s ’British Music Collection’ double released in May (along with discs dedicated to Arnold, Britten, Butterworth, Finzi, Sullivan and one other contemporary composer, Mark-Anthony Turnage). Panic is given in its première recording with the original performers, while Earth Dances is given in its first (and currently only) studio recording, by the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi. These works were originally released together but now have been joined by Håkan Hardenberger’s Philips recording of the trumpet concerto, Endless Parade, Elgar Howarth (again) conducting. This has always seemed to be me a perfect inroad to Birtwistle’s music. Inspired by a ’Festa’ in the Italian walled-town of Lucca, Birtwistle heard the jamboree from different standpoints as it circled him in the medieval labyrinth of streets; Endless Parade views the same material from different perspectives. It’s a brilliantly simple idea and has engendered in Birtwistle an atmospheric and richly enjoyable concerto, with a vibraphone making an especial impact as a corollary to the trumpet.
The first disc of Decca’s set reissues Deutsche Grammophon’s Boulez CD with his Ensemble InterContemporain, originally released to coincide with Boulez’s 70th-birthday in 1995. The classic Secret Theatre (albeit missing the visual element of the ’cantus’ group of the 14-strong ensemble leaving their seats to play behind the ’continuum’ group) is joined by the earlier, 1965, Tragœdia (a musical depiction of a goat dance – analogous to Panic, from the Greek), three settings of the poet Paul Celan (which have now been much expanded in Pulse Shadows, shortly to be released on Teldec) and the wind quintet Five Distances. With Boulez at the helm, these performances are beyond reproach; Five Distances has the added imprimatur that it was soloists from the EIC that gave the première, at the Purcell Room on 7 May 1993.
That was a belated première, the original date having been set for the previous September. Although it has been singularly omitted from all literature, Five Distances was commissioned by SBC for a festival bringing together such luminaries as oboist Heinz Holliger and bassoonist Klaus Thunemann (along with pianist András Schiff). Given that the festival was called ’Contrasts’, and that Birtwistle’s contribution was probably going to be the most contrasting element of the chosen repertoire, it was a great disappointment that the wind players decided (for whatever reason) that they were unable to give the première.
However, the EIC no longer has the recorded field to itself. Along come the Galliard Ensemble – flautist Kathryn Thomas, oboist Owen Dennis, clarinettist Katherine Spencer, bassoonist Helen Simons and Richard Bayliss on French horn – with an enterprising disc of wind and piano works by Birtwistle, which ends with Five Distances. There is no doubt that the young Brits give the established Parisians a run for their money, and the recording is just that little more natural. This Deux-Elles release is a particularly attractive release, its combination of works not replicated elsewhere in the catalogue. It includes Birtwistle’s first published work, Refrains and Choruses (1957); particularly impressive is Duets for Storab for two flutes (Thomas being joined by Robert Manasse). Notwithstanding my claims for Endless Parade, this extremely welcome addition to the catalogue will afford a balanced entry-point into the composer’s soundings. Three cheers, then, to Deux-Elles and the Galliard; also The Classical Source’s contribution to make this disc happen should be noted. (Click here to read Steve Lomas’ review of this disk)
8. Reflections on Lost Silver
It is one of the vagaries of today’s recording industry that, while there is a wealth of innovation in choice of repertoire, recordings seem to be available for an alarmingly short time; the major companies are the worst offenders in this respect. While the Birtwistle ’British Music Collection’ double is an important reissue, I hope it won’t make the deletions’ list too soon. The demise of Collins Classics means the première recording of Earth Dances (20012), the revised version of Gawain (70412), the piano concerto, Antiphonies, with Nomos and An Imaginary Landscape (14142) and a coupling of Gawain’s Journey and The Triumph of Time (13872) are all out of the current catalogue.
9. Reflections on Wanted Silver
There are a number of Birtwistle’s works yet to make it to disc. Three operas still languish in aural purgatory, and it is a shame that the co-operation to transmit Yan Tan Tethera simultaneously on Channel 4 and Radio 3 could not be rekindled for a commercial release of that recording on CD (even better on DVD). Could not NMC come to the rescue?The latest two operas – The Second Mrs Kong and The Last Supper, let alone the tuba concerto, The Cry of Anubis, which emanated from the former – would be great to have, to join Punch and Judy and The Mask of Orpheus.
10. Read All About It
For those seeking further information on Birtwistle, there are now three recently published books on his music. Perhaps the most readable, in that it gives a wealth of extra-musical information (about circumstances of first performances etc), is Michael Hall’s update on his earlier monograph. This new volume, Harrison Birtwistle in Recent Years (Robson Books, 1998), has now been joined by Jonathan Cross’s Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind and Music (Faber and Faber, 2000) and Robert Adlington’s The Music of Harrison Birtwistle (CUP, 2000). Both note Birtwistle’s fascination with Greek Theatre – Cross even constructing his survey akin to the architecture of a Greek play – and both survey works by theme, rather than strict chronology. While Adlington’s has the clearer layout, the downside is the prohibitive cost (£42.50); Cross’s paperback retails at £14.99. Cross also discusses The Last Supper, albeit in the future tense, whereas Adlington makes no reference to it at all. Thus for less than the outlay of a new CD, both Hall’s or Cross’s volumes will satiate the new Birtwistle convert, and the old stalwart, with the hope that a library near you may stock the Adlington.
11. A New Song (and two others on Sir Alfred)
The most recent Birtwistle première was on 30 June 2001 – one of three settings of poems by Alfred Brendel commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in honour of the pianist’s 70th-birthday. Birtwistle chose ’There is something between us . . .’, which is not one of Brendel’s published poems. Starting and ending in hesitant rhythmical depths, Birtwistle’s setting rose in an eloquent arch of sound with a climax centring on the word “radiated” mid-way through the poem, which describes a mutual attraction seemingly controlled by a “perfect puppeteer”. Eloquently sung, at short notice, by David Wilson-Johnson, who replaced the indisposed baritone Matthias Goerne, this was illustrative Birtwistle – the distinctive vocal line, supported by the phantom sounds of the orchestra, emulated the puppeteer in drawing text and singer together.
By contrast (it is worth noting) the other premières were by Tom Adès and Luciano Berio. Adès writes more conventionally for the voice. He chose to set more phantoms in ’Brahms II’ (this time the ghost of the bearded guardian of absolute music – who Brendel imagines polluting the music room with chords and double octaves, as well as pungent cigar-smoke, and waking the children before exiting through the kitchen door). Ades has set the original German, and garlands the text with busy brashness and swirling scalic descents and ascents. I suspect he has never heard Brendel recite his poem, slightly stilted in his still-prevalent Austrian accent, but at all times sotto voce. Having said that, Adès has created a particular pastiche that is more satisfying than much else of his work; Goerne’s replacement, giving it his all, was Christopher Maltman.
Berio, returning to English, also (coincidentally?) kept up the ghostly theme, with the story of Alois who sees in the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka a portal to the Holy Ghost. In typical Berio fashion – this is the world of his polyglot Sinfonia rather than the extremes of, for example, his trombone concerto, SOLO – there is an ever-present feeling of earlier music bubbling under the surface; here, of course, Johann Strauss’s Polka, but it’s only in the final bars that a direct quote comes to the fore, with a similar flourish to Strauss’s original. Elsewhere the rapid figurations given to the orchestra were gleefully accommodated by the Philharmonia, under Dohnanyi, only occasionally drowning Roderick Williams, the third replacement for Goerne. Berio was the only one to indulge in repeating phrases, adding emphasis, usually to the start of lines. All three composers were in attendance.
12. Coming Soon
The next opportunities to catch Birtwistle’s works are, in August, seven performances of The Last Supper; then there’s a trio of works at a late-night Prom on 7 September, including a new work for brass (also broadcast live on Radio 3 of course). For those interested in the opera, there is a CD available from Glyndebourne, introduced by Jonathan Cross, which includes excerpts from the première performances at the Berlin Staatsoper. At over 70 minutes it is a remarkably innovative and invigorating way of preparing yourself for a performance.
Meanwhile, CD collectors can be heartily recommended to try both Decca’s release and the Galliard Ensemble’s enterprising disc. Certainly the latter will intrigue and delight and, before you know it, you too might have be seduced by Birtwistle’s wholly personal timbres and expression, and will be waiting – like me – with impatience for his new opera, for Covent Garden, based on the minotaur myth.
(click here for listing information)