Lyrita – Sir Harrison Birtwistle

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The Fields of Sorrow
Verses for Ensembles
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus

Jane Manning (soprano)

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

The Matrix
Alan Hacker (clarinet)

Recorded January & May 1973 in Kingsway Hall, London

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: August 2008
Duration: 56 minutes


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sprechstimme (as narrator) and sung pitch (as both Orpheus and Eurydice) and back. She is supported by an ensemble of three bass clarinets, piano (one player, two instruments, one of which has its bottom strings damped with blocks of rubber) and crotales. As in the other works on this disc, there is a strong ritual feel to the music: the result is one of Birtwistle’s most powerfully moving scores.

Verses for Ensembles, for woodwind, brass and percussion (both pitched and unpitched) could scarcely be more different. Of the three works here, this is the one that comes in the wake of “Punch and Judy”. Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and first performed in 1969, Verses for Ensemble is undeniably hard-edged and rebarbative, on the whole, but full of exhilarating energy, and with moments of almost unearthly stillness. The spatial element that was part of “The Fields of Sorrow” is here used in a more dynamic way, with players moving around and between positions as specified by diagrams in the score. In particular, positions at the front and back of the platform are used by the two trumpets and the woodwind for important solos.

All these performances, it hardly needs to be said, exude commitment and confidence, and the recordings belie their more than thirty years’ provenance with sound so vivid that they might have been made yesterday. The players’ changing positions in Verses for Ensembles comes across particularly clearly.Neither the second soprano nor the chorus in “The Fields of Sorrow” is identified (was Jane Manning double-tracked?). The text of “Nenia” is included, as is a translation of “Fields” (more literal than the one by Helen Wadell printed in the score) but not the original Latin set by Birtwistle. The striking cover photo also deserves a mention.

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