Harrison Birtwistle

0 of 5 stars

Theseus Game
Earth Dances *

Ensemble Modern
Martyn Brabbins & Pierre-André Valade

Ensemble Modern Orchestra
Pierre Boulez *

Recorded at live performances in Germany: Theseus Game recorded 19 & 20 September 2003 in Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, Gebläsehalle; Earth Dances recorded 29 October 2001 in Frankfurt, Alte Oper, Grosser Saal

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: August 2004
CD No: DG 477 0702
Duration: 67 minutes

Harrison Birtwistle writes music that seems to tap into the core of the earth. A music of seismic power, whose staggeringly eruptive surface energy is a result of the clashing and grinding of geological strata and tectonic plates deep below. Nowhere is this more evident than in Earth Dances, a work to which the term “a Rite of Spring for the 1980s” has stuck. Listening to a performance of Earth Dances is like being subjected to an elemental force of nature. Now, some 15 years after it was written, its dedicatee Pierre Boulez has taken up the work and this recording of Earth Dances (its third) was made at a live performance in October 2001. The coupling is Theseus Game, a composite of the first two performances in September 2003. Both performances are quite electrifying.

Even by Birtwistle’s standards, Theseus Game is a remarkably complex work. It sets into motion three discrete elements – two groups under separate conductors and a solo line articulated by different instruments in succession. The two groups operate in their own tempos and the instrumentation of these groups is constantly changing as players swap allegiances between the two. The physical movement of the musicians according to the undisclosed rules of the composer’s game-plan brings a theatrical dimension to the piece, as it does in many other Birtwistle works such as Verses for Ensembles, Secret Theatre and Ritual Fragment. The solo line is always taken from a position at the front of the ensemble and evidently represents Ariadne’s thread that led Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth (the myth is the subject of Birtwistle’s next opera, in which the story will be told twice).

The necessarily unpredictable temporal co-ordination of the three strands is indicative of Birtwistle’s lack of concern for localised control over the harmonic implications of his writing, just as is his use of randomly generated numbers to determine pitches. What interests Birtwistle is not so much the musical material itself but how it can be shaped to create a drama. This explains his radical approach to form – the works generate their own forms out of the interplay of their materials, as opposed to the traditional approach of pouring the material into a pre-formed mould as practised by, shall we say, the latter-day Peter Maxwell Davies for instance.

The soundworld of Theseus Game is instantly recognisable as Birtwistle – not a single bar sounds like any other composer. It is astonishingly rebarbative without let-up throughout its entire duration. Even the slow and quiet passages register as fast and loud music heard from a distance rather than as points of relaxation. In fact they come across as the shifts in perspective experienced in wandering round a maze and returning to the same points by a different route. Only at the very end, when the solo line is passed to the cor anglais and the music winds down onto unison Es, do we get a sense of release, of having exited the labyrinth.

Undoubtedly one of Birtwistle’s most challenging and demanding works, Theseus Game receives a performance of stunning collective virtuosity by Ensemble Modern, steered with great precision and control by the ubiquitous Martyn Brabbins and Boulez protégé Pierre-André Valade. No composer could expect a more committed and dynamic first performance than Ensemble Modern delivers here.

The formidable power of Earth Dances is generated by the meshing of no less than six layers of material, arranged according to a “hierarchy of intervals”. But just as with Theseus Game (at least when listening to a recording), what we hear is the collective result of their superimposition rather than the individual elements themselves. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this modern masterwork is the long-term planning that enables the composer to maintain over 30 minutes of music at fever pitch whilst still holding something in reserve for the explosive stretch near the end, where the interval of a minor third hammers out ever more emphatically until finally it caps the work’s molten energy.

The first recording of Earth Dances appeared on the now defunct Collins Classics label in a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Peter Eötvös taped at the 1991 Proms. Eötvös focussed on the elemental might of the work in a powerful but sprawling interpretation. The subsequent recording by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi (Argo/Decca) had the opposite merits, in applying a disciplined ‘Central European’ approach somewhat at the expense of the untameable wildness of Birtwistle’s idiom.

As could have been expected from his interpretation of the 1913 Rite, Boulez’s version of the 1986 Rite fuses both of these approaches. The performance is suffused with a primal force but a tight rein holds everything together and maintains forward momentum, such that the work comes across as a single utterance without the sectional feel of the Eötvös version. Boulez is also fully alive to the moments of glinting beauty where small chinks of light peep through the primordial blackness, above all in the dying moments of the work. The Ensemble Modern Orchestra comprises the core players of Ensemble Modern augmented by new-music specialists from all over the world – and does it show! This is undoubtedly the finest recorded version of Earth Dances by some way. With stunningly clear sound (particularly in Theseus Game) bringing out every last detail of these scores, DG has produced one of the most indispensable contemporary music recordings of recent years.

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