Birtwistle at 80 – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen with Katrien Baerts [Tragœdia … Silbury Air]

Harrison Birtwistle
Cantus Iambeus
Monody for Corpus Christi
Fantasia on all the Notes
Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski
Silbury Air

Katrien Baerts (soprano)

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 May, 2014
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Harrison Birtwistle. Photograph: Hanya ChlalaThe Barbican Centre’s marking of Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th-birthday (the date itself being July 15) continued here and moved to nearby Milton Court for this varied and stimulating concert (meanwhile the Barbican Hall itself was playing host to Emmylou Harris). Oliver Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group were outstanding guides through seven Birtwistle scores, an excellent retrospective encompassing the years 1959 to 2011. The audience included fellow-composers Julian Anderson, Colin Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Of the shorter Birtwistle pieces, Cantus Iambeus (2004) made for an ear-grabbing opener, atmospheric and sinister, somewhat gawky yet mercurial, shrieking and sonic, detail and density accumulating before the music stops in its stalking tracks and fades to silence. This scintillating six-minute starter is scored for string quartet, double bass, piano, harp, wind quintet (the bassoon doubling on contra) and marimba. The 10-minute Fantasia on all the Notes (2011) – for a septet of winds, strings and harp (think Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro) – finds expressive equality within the music’s particular spirit and energy if though tinged with a melancholy provoked by the news that Tony Fell (formerly of Boosey & Hawkes) had died during the work’s composition.

The three vocal works enjoyed the mesmeric contributions of Katrien Baerts, fearless in the many technical demands made by the composer while also making characterful music. Cantata (1969) is a 10-minute setting of tombstone inscriptions and Sappho (in English translations), opening “Let all the earth shed tears”. The music (for violin, cello, flute/piccolo, clarinet, glockenspiel and piano/celesta) is sinewy, runic and dramatic. Monody for Corpus Christi (1959) was effectively Birtwistle’s ‘Opus 2’, and if the composer was still finding himself, the rigour yet freedom of these two settings of ancient language (separated by an instrumental interlude) is striking if perhaps a little too extended for 15 minutes, here stunningly sung. The revelation of the evening was Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski (1991), for soprano and 13 musicians, music that expressively shares with Birtwistle’s great opera, Gawain, lyrical and vivid and developing a seamless narrative that filled seven minutes to compelling effect. In all that she did, Katrien Baerts left a huge and entirely positive impression.

Each of the concert’s halves ended with a Birtwistle classic. The 20-minute Tragœdia (1965) – for string quartet, harp and wind quintet, with some players also employed on the hard percussive punctuation given by wood-dry claves – shrill, stuttering to life, pungent, eruptive and rapacious in its fleetness, yet also capable of sensuality. Combative and beguiling in turn, Tragœdia is still very much in currency fifty years on. So too Silbury Air (1977), 15 players (including trumpet and trombone added to the previous line-ups) for 15 minutes – exhilarating, propulsive, splenetic, raucous, disruptive (the scoring includes drums and temple blocks), and also occasionally wistful and enigmatic, not least at the close, given to harp alone, one of the composer’s most compelling landscapes (stimulated by Silbury Hill in Wiltshire) and here given a knockout performance.

When Harry met Ollie (both in good form) in the company of the indefatigable BCMG and in the ideal acoustic of Milton Court (uncluttered and truthful) proved to be a terrific evening of challenging and inimitable music – rugged, honest and with deep-earth passion.

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