The Axe Manual
Nicolas Hodges (piano) & Claire Edwardes (percussion)
London Sinfonietta Voices
Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi
Reviewed: 6 November, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
If there is one musical tradition Sir Harrison Birtwistle seems not to have questioned it is that of musical types. This “Birtwistle Games” concert produced three of the composer’s contributions to the history of chamber music, symphonic tradition, and the concerto, all in clearly modified form, all designed to last, but still obvious. Corresponding to the theme of Theseus Game, the golden thread that helped Theseus escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth, these modifications provided a helpful tool for keeping an overview over the plenty that was presented, and in the case of the two last works that are not too easily approached.
The Axe Manual, partly a pun on the work’s commissioner, Emanuel Ax, and also a meditation on the word ‘manual’ that reminded the composer not just of Ax’s instrument but also of a compendium (in this case, of rhythmic devices), was a relatively quiet opening for an evening that would find its dynamic peaks in completely different spheres. Still, the dynamics of the superb duet-performance supplied a musical experience that could well have been the evening’s real climax. Both pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Claire Edwardes gave highly convincing presentations of their virtuoso skills, but came close to giving an overwhelming performance with respect to their rhythmic synchronicity within the complicated patterns of the music.
As the percussion explored the colours from untuned to tuned instruments – wooden, metallic, and vibraphone, and back again – the alert communication between the two musicians more and more produced the desired effect, the melding of the two into one, non-communicating but one-being, breathtaking, musical entity. All paradoxes with respect to communication versus non-communication put aside. Given the pre-dominance of rhythm over the other parameters, this work also pointed at Birtwistle’s sometimes jazzy, or maybe Hindemithian voice, which got a later, melodic echo in some of the soloists’ phrases in Theseus Game.
Hardly a work could have given a greater contrast to this than …agm… from 1978/79. Based on syllables from the so called “Crocodile-Cries”, fragments from Sappho’s poems named after the mummified Fayum Crocodiles to which the papyrus had served as stuffing material, here was one of the “big subjects” Birtwistle likes to “get dirty hands” from. Involving three instrumental ensembles that came rather close to the romantic orchestra plus the sixteen London Sinfonietta Voices, this piece lived from lush, grandiose gestures. The three-thousand-year-old syllables, clustering into dynamic waves were counterparted by an orchestra that was set on dramatic mode, reflecting the pulsating rhythm of the voices that itself was based on the metric structure of Sappho’s poetry. Again, rhythm was the all-uniting element that kept the pieces together and led it to its hieratic, perplexingly neo-ancient end composer at his most radical.
Closing with an outstanding example of his latest compositions, Theseus Game, from 2002, melody was reintroduced as a layer of its own, apart from the ever-present, even more complex rhythmic patterns of the orchestral ‘labyrinth’. Using two conductors, Birtwistle juxtaposes two permanently shifting ensembles that follow either the one or the other of the conductors, with soloists emerging from the ensemble. One musician after the other – seated facing the audience – continued their phrasing of the melodic line, starting with the violin, that passes the ‘thread’ on to the flute, which itself makes way for the bassoon, etc. until the melodic line is returned to the violin, thereby closing a cyclic structure of tonal hue analogous to that of The Axe Manual.
The musicians of the co-commissioning ensemble gave an impressively eloquent performance, with Pierre-André Valade being one of the conductors of the premiere performance, thereby ending an evening that fully achieved its purpose, namely to show up the continuity as well as the wide scope of expression in Birtwistle’s work.