Night’s Black Bird
The Shadow of Night
The Cry of Anubis
Owen Slade (tuba)
Recorded 17-19 July 2010 in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2011
CD No: NMC D156
Duration: 56 minutes
This very welcome release from NMC brings three first recordings from Harrison Birtwistle’s output, two of the pieces being conjured from what might be described as the composer’s dark side. The major work (in terms of length) is the half-hour The Shadow of Night (2001), a titular borrowing from an Elizabethan poem by George Chapman. The work, a BBC commission, was first heard in January 2002 from The Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi (this partnership having already championed Birtwistle’s Earth Dances), this conductor, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, going on to give the UK premiere eighteen months later during the 2003 BBC Proms season.
Expressions of melancholy is central to Birtwistle’s creativity here – inspired in part by Albrecht Dürer’s impression “Melencolia I” (1514) and also through the borrowing of John Dowland’s lute-song In Darkness Let Me Dwell; the first three notes of the piccolo solo (from 1’35”) being derived from it. (Just fleetingly, we may not be too far away from the Thomas Hardy-inspired musical landscape of Holst’s Egdon Heath.) Birtwistle’s The Shadow of Night is music of shifting translucent colours, long intense lines that rise in volume to two shattering climaxes (the first proving to be ‘false’, the second, although brief, inexorably where the piece has been heading and led by searing high trumpets) and with much atmosphere and intrigue, a crepuscular slow-burn vitality (the sort of contradiction that Birtwistle relishes) that builds spectacularly and surely cannot fail to compel and thrill. Scored for a large orchestra, this is music that is consistently engrossing; and however “functional” Birtwistle’s orchestrations are sometimes considered to be, the sounds he produces here are shimmering, sensual and suggestive, and bring much gratification for the ear. The Shadow of Night is a notable counterpart to the grim-reaper narrative that is The Triumph of Time (1972, stimulated by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s engraving), one of Birtwistle’s most enduring creations (available from NMC with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Elgar Howarth).
Night’s Black Bird (2004) – a smaller companion to The Shadow of Night (half its length but retaining a large orchestra and opening and closing with similar musical gestures) – was also first-played by The Cleveland Orchestra, under Franz Welser-Möst at the Lucerne Festival, and quickly followed by its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in a concert that also included The Shadow of Night. On that occasion the new shorter piece preceded its older longer fellow-traveller (and Birtwistle’s music certainly journeys, often to unexpected places) and such a layout is retained by NMC’s presentation, which might seem chronologically odd but it is done at the request of the composer – “… to suggest that, in a circular time world, a memory may also be a premonition.” Night’s Black Bird also has a Dowland connection, this time Flow My Tears, and is a shadowy measured processional, immediately grabbing the listener in its sinewy obscurity, familiar musical objects (familiar if The Shadow of Night is auditioned first) now viewed differently (another Birtwistlian trademark), rather sullenly at times if enlivened by woodwind calls that might be heard as uninhibited chirping birds, leviathan horn whoops and, once again, trumpets that, laser-like, electrify the listener to the core. The pace may be unhurried, if active, but the action is condensed.
The Cry of Anubis (1994) is lighter in texture and in mood. It has a solo line for a tuba but is not a concerto for that instrument, something reflected in the well-balanced recording that seems to present Owen Slade’s valiant playing (he gave the first performance and is formerly a member of the London Philharmonic) from within the orchestra rather than in front of it. Anubis was the “jackal-headed god of the Ancient Egyptian city of the dead…”, and is also a character from Birtwistle’s opera “The Second Mrs Kong”. This with-tuba piece develops music from the opera, sustained and agitated fast passages set against rather beautiful and expressive slower ideas, and embracing some playful rhythms and also a sense of resolution, in a score that is emotionally and expressively implicit and also aromatic of a subject and a place.
The performances are stunning, the members of the Hallé playing with superb address and conviction, guided by the deeply sympathetic Ryan Wigglesworth, a regular collaborator of Birtwistle’s and himself a composer. With Bayan Northcott’s exemplary booklet-note and a superbly clear, dynamically wide-ranging recording this is a distinguished and valuable issue that is recommended without reservation.