Refrains and Choruses
Duets for Storab
Berceuse de Jeanne
Chorale from a Toy-Shop
An Interrupted Endless Melody
The Galliard Ensemble:
Kathryn Thomas flute
Owen Dennis oboe
Richard Bayliss horn
Katherine Spencer clarinet
Helen Simons bassoon
With Richard Shaw (piano), Mark Law (piccolo trumpet) and Robert Manasse (flute)
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: July 2001
CD No: DEUX-ELLES DXL 1019
Duration: 74 minutes
The distinction between the fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing has been applied many times by writers to Birtwistle, usually in a comparison with our resident fox, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Indeed, Birtwistle’s works can always be traced back to an overarching vision, and such is the force of his creative personality that it is remarkably difficult to discuss the music on any terms other than Birtwistle’s own. Just as it is apparently impossible to write about the work of Takemitsu without reference to horticulture, so the writer on Birtwistle’s music seems pre-determined to discuss it in terms of endless parades, or three-dimensional objects viewed from different angles, and so on.
Birtwistle has himself referred to his entire output as being one single work more or less arbitrarily cut up into smaller pieces; the sequencing of the present disc illustrates this perfectly. As the title implies, substantial works for varying wind combinations are alternated with short piano pieces, which creates a kind of single meta-statement, an impression strengthened by the radical consistency of Birtwistle’s musical language over the four decades spanned by this music.
The earliest published work on this CD is the wind quintet, Refrains and Choruses, Birtwistle’s ’opus one’, which is comparable to Maxwell Davies’s contemporaneous Sonata for Trumpet and Piano in the way it announces the arrival of a new creative voice startlingly fully-formed at birth. This was Birtwistle’s instinctive response to the continental avant-garde, and what a shock this music must have caused in the relative provincialism of British music of the 1950s. To consider that Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata was written around the same time as Strauss’s Four Last Songs is to reflect on the spirit that was pushing the boundaries of music forward in France and Germany.
The fact that Refrains and Choruses was written around the same time as Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony, however, says much more about the prevailing spirit in Britain in the 50s. The piece is already typical of its composer in its controlled violence, which is leavened with a bleak pastoral quality, and in its internal drama based on the fact of the horn being the odd man out in the wind quintet instrumentation. The Galliard’s performance – as throughout on this CD – registers this drama vividly, in contrast with the rather monochrome performance by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble on Etcetera (KTC 1130).
A comparison of Refrains and Choruses with the wind quintet of some thirty-five years later, Five Distances, reveals Birtwistle’s consistency of language while at the same time displaying what a sovereign command of the craft of composition Birtwistle had acquired by the early 1990s. The reputation that initially clung to Birtwistle as a kind of inspired amateur – that he couldn’t harmonise the National Anthem, as was once infamously suggested – seems a very distant memory (the case of Michael Tippett is a similar one). Again, the horn is pivotal by dint of its timbre, but the later work has an airy playfulness, which is new, and which amounts to an unusually close rapprochement with the divertimento style traditionally associated with the wind quintet genre. Birtwistle prides himself on his endings; the manner in which the bassoon puts the brakes on the piece’s high spirits with its obstinate two-note phrase – like a stern schoolteacher announcing the end of playtime – is a winner. Again, a brilliant and characterful performance by the Galliard, even if it must cede the last word in virtuosity to the DG performance by the Ensemble InterContemporain (now on a Decca 2-CD Birtwistle collection, 468 804-2).
Two works for clarinet and piano make another interesting comparison. Verses is a highly-constructivist work (five minutes of music that yielded sixteen pages of analysis in Michael Hall’s book) that barely rises above mezzo-forte; whereas Linoi alternates a fledgling melody with anguished cries as the clarinet’s song is thrice thwarted. Both works are totally compelling on their different terms. Katherine Spencer’s performance is more extrovert in both works than Roger Heaton’s more controlled performance on Clarinet Classics (CC 0019). Her approach works better in Linoi than Verses where Heaton’s greater restraint seems more in keeping with the somnolent mood and, as a result, the two bright Gs that end Verses register more dramatically.
Duets for Storab is a riveting piece for two flutes (thrillingly played by Kathryn Thomas and Robert Manasse) which demonstrates that Birtwistle does not have to use timbral variety to create drama. The work, in effect, is a sequence of five variations on the melody of the first movement, ’Urlar’, where it is built note-by-note and then dismantled. In a movement such as ’White Pastoral’, Birtwistle allows himself a modal lyricism reminiscent of one of the recurring fragments in Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, whose long-held chords punctuated by a staccato one feature in the short tribute to Stravinsky, Chorale from a Toy-Shop, for five unspecified instruments, here convincingly realised as a wind quintet.
Other Birtwistlian tenets – that context is more sacred than material, and that melody and accompaniment or foreground and background can be complexly interwoven – are well illustrated by An Interrupted Endless Melody for oboe and piano. A beautifully poised oboe melody is repeated three times but with a different piano part – choppy chords in the first version, similar figuration in the second but within a narrower harmonic bandwidth, and contrapuntal motion in the third. The point is proven, each version sounds like a different piece.
The piano works constitute three occasional pieces and a rare example of Birtwistle juvenilia, Oockooing Bird. This fascinating piece (first recorded by Stephen Pruslin on the Clarinet Classics disc) has a Vaughan Williams-like modality but also something of the entranced simplicity of Satie, cited elsewhere by Birtwistle as an influence on his musical thinking. Even in a piece as early as this, interesting questions are being asked about the relationship of line to accompaniment. The lushness of the closing harmonies, however, was something he would soon reject. In the other pieces a fragile modal sadness is proposed, most affectingly in Berceuse de Jeanne.
The disc bursts forth in spectacular style with the recent tribute to Boulez, Hoquetus Petrus, for piccolo trumpet and two flutes (brilliantly played here) which finds Birtwistle in uncharacteristically exuberant mood and which has a genuinely witty ending.
The recording has a natural, open acoustic which is well suited to the incisiveness of the wind instruments, albeit somewhat at the expense of the piano sound which is rather bloodless in quieter passages. The performances are uniformly first-rate. I hope that Deux-Elles will be encouraged by the success of this disc and will continue to boldly go where the big labels fear to tread.