Birtwistle Games – 3

Earth Dances

Pierre Laurent-Aimard (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A multi-concert retrospective offers a timely opportunity to hear works from a composer’s past as well as those recently completed or newly commissioned. So it is with “Birtwistle Games”, and this pairing of two major pieces written either side of his opera “Gawain” – of which the former received its UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall 11 years ago and the latter its world premiere seven years before.

As in all genres, Birtwistle’s approach to the concerto has been nothing if unorthodox. Perhaps taking its cue from Boulez’s Répons, Antiphonies (1992) is a work in which the piano is both at the centre of the musical process and at a conceptual remove from it. While often identified as part of a sub-ensemble with harps and percussion, the ‘soloist’ also moves between orchestral groupings and layers with a dexterity that suggests something of a master of ceremonies – pointing up salient detail in the often teeming texture and acting as a melodic through-line in a way that has long been a Birtwistlian hallmark. The formal trajectory of successive blocks of musical activity is as powerfully honed as in others of the composer’s orchestral works, yet the material is less immediate than one might expect – as though in solving the concerto question, Birtwistle were looking to other composers (Varèse and Messiaen, besides those already referred to) with surprising directness at this stage of his maturity.

Which is not to deny that Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed with all his customary precision and finesse – and the subtly amplified piano sound really does elucidate the more intricate textures – nor the Philharmonia Orchestra’s expertise in a score it tackled with Boulez at that memorable 1993 concert.

Nevertheless, this question of individuality in the execution is thrown into sharper focus by Earth Dances (1986) – Birtwistle’s most potent redefining of musical landscape, and a work whose visceral interplay of orchestral layers he has subsequent refined but not equalled for sheer impact. Spoken of, at the time of its premiere, as a late twentieth-century Rite of Spring, the piece is more redolent of its composer’s maturity than that seminal score – while any lack of comparable magnetism was dispelled by this performance. Without at all sacrificing the control evinced in his fine Cleveland recording, Christoph von Dohnányi brought both the music’s granitic sonorities and its inexorability to the fore – confirming, for those who still doubt it, that the avoidance of goal-directed logic cannot be construed as formal randomness. The alternation of relative activity and repose in the first half were vividly delineated, with the upsurge of momentum creating a frisson of intensity. Moreover, detail was shaped with a concern for the broader canvas that suggested lengthy and painstaking rehearsal – something one can so rarely take for granted in large-scale contemporary works.

A pity the performance was not broadcast; had it have been preserved for the archive it would have made an ideal issue should the Philharmonia ever launch its own CD label. This was a triumph of interpretative conviction and commitment such as there can never be enough of on the London concert scene.

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