Birtwistle Games – 4

Birtwistle
Pulse Shadows

Claron McFadden (soprano)

Arditti Quartet
[Irvine Arditti & Graeme Jennings (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Rohan de Saram (cello)]

Nash Ensemble
[Richard Hosford & Timothy Lines (clarinets), Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Duncan McTier (double bass)]
Martyn Brabbins


Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 2 November, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

According to Sir Harrison Birtwistle, quoted in the programme, Pulse Shadows came about almost by accident. He was asked for a song to be performed by Mary Wiegold and The Composers’ Ensemble. Being in France at the time, all he had to hand was a copy of Michael Hamburger’s translation of Paul Celan’s “White and Light”. Similarly the instrumentation was restricted to two clarinets, cello, viola and double bass. He went on to compose further Celan settings, attracted by their “setability”, their imagery and their hesitant lyrical quality.

It was only later that he learned of the considerable intellectual baggage that Celan’s settings brought with them. A Holocaust survivor, Celan’s parents were both killed in concentration camps and his subsequent poems all seem to be trying to give the lie to his statement that the Holocaust made it impossible to write poems any more. That Birtwistle’s melancholic Celan settings, with music that is stoical and intensely human, have so much to contribute to Celan’s work says much about Birtwistle’s genius.

In parallel to the Celan settings he was writing short pieces for string quartet. These constitute a series of movements entitled either Frieze or Fantasia. The Friezes consist of rhythmic patterns that repeat, always slightly differently – a very Birtwistlian concern. And the Fantasias are a nod in the direction of the English viol consort, Purcell filtered through Birtwistle’s visionary brain. An important element in these pieces, as in viol consort music, is the interplay between the individual players, the sense of dialogue and of repetition of motifs, each time slightly changed.

Eventually Birtwistle interleaved these two groups of pieces, creating a single magical work of 18 movements alternating string quartet with soprano and ensemble. Only at the beginning and end do the pieces intersect. The first string piece overlaps hesitantly with the first song. The final string piece, Frieze 4, is entitled ‘Todesfuge’ and is a meditation on the Celan poem of the same name. The poem describes the degradation of concentration camp victims at the hands of the Nazi commandants; Birtwistle said he felt that its bold images couldn’t be set and instead he has tried to render them using the string quartet. Once this final quartet piece has finished, the strings continued to play, their long static lines underpinning the soprano and ensemble’s curiously understated setting of the final poem, “Give the Word”, which unifies the two groups in capturing Celan’s imagery perfectly.

The performers at this concert have had a long association with Pulse Shadows having recorded the work for Teldec (conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw). This concert performance had all the benefits of long familiarity melded to a sense of new-minted wonder. McFadden is one of these enviable performers who wander between the Baroque and contemporary music worlds. She brought to Birtwistle’s expressive and expressionist vocal line a sense of beauty, clarity and naturalness, the art that conceals art. Her diction was admirable and she just allowing the music and words to convey their magical wonder. She was ably supported by the flexible accompaniment of the Nash Ensemble, especially noticeable in passages where an instrumentalist shadows the singer or where a clarinet echoes the singer’s high notes. And there are many high notes; the vocal part has a wide tessitura; McFadden showed little strain and managed to incorporate both the spoken and the speech-song sections in a very unforced manner.

Commenting on all this was the Arditti Quartet, though the quartet-music does not explicitly refer to the songs the concerns are similar and the two worlds interact and makes it difficult to believe the work was not planned in this manner from the outset. The fact that it works so stunningly says much for Birtwistle’s craftsmanship and how close these pieces are to his heart.

The Arditti Quartet played with fine control, almost vibrato-less tone contrasting with the more ‘romantic’ sound of the Nash Ensemble and revealed an underlying communication between the players. For much of the time, the music emphasised the importance of silence. Violence was present but quite often presented as a duality with quiet intensity, everything linked by silence.

It was this quiet intensity and the sense of contained violence that characterised the entire performance, one in which all the performers subsumed technical difficulties and presented Birtwistle’s music with a wonderfully expressive clarity.

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