Birtwistle Games – 2

Ritual Fragment
Silbury Air
Secret Theatre
The Viola in My Life (II)

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)

Paul Silverthorne (viola)

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 October, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The second of the “Games” concerts celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 70th birthday returned the co-founder of the London Sinfonietta to conduct. No conductor is needed for Ritual Fragment from 1990, paying tribute to the late Michael Vyner, the Sinfonietta’s Artistic Director. It’s a work of striking solemnity with a visual dimension of various instrumentalists taking centre-stage to pay individual homage, a bass drum marking time; a powerful and moving piece.

Birtwistle himself has chosen the other composers in this series, and made two worthy selections for this concert. Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88) was represented by Kya (1959), for clarinet and an ensemble of seven instruments (cor anglais, horn, trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, viola and cello). An intriguing work, not least in the combination of instruments suggesting others, with a range of moods that was diverting, so too Scelsi’s subtlety of texture and humour, which was ultimately inconclusive and, maybe, didn’t quite sustain the 15 minutes’ playing-time.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) also bid us to listen with concentration, to appreciate silence, as he hallucinated with his elusive expression in the second of four works entitled The Viola in My Life, the solo viola joined by violin, cello, flute, celesta and some discreet percussion. This is music of haunting beauty, simple (but not simple-minded) and which is immensely rewarding and absorbing. A sensitive performance wasn’t necessarily reciprocated by some audience members who made more noise than the music.

Of the remaining works by Birtwistle, Silbury Air (1977), after Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, made a huge impression, music of freshness and originality that leapt off the page here with an energy and imagery that was transfixing. Less so Secret Theatre (1984), another work (like Ritual Fragment) in which musicians change position, a prime example of Birtwistle’s preoccupation with perspective and ritual; but the theatre aspect seemed in short supply; for although the rendition was excellent, the work tended to sprawl, to stutter. It was the contemplative sections that most held the attention; otherwise discursiveness was apparent; yet Secret Theatre has made a scintillating impression in the past, and no doubt will do so again.

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