Mater Christi sanctissima
Civitas sancti tui
Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus
Motets from The Last Supper
Sing Joyfully unto God our Strength
When David heard
O Clap Your Hands
Messe de la Pentecôte
Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus
Royal Academy of Music Brass Soloists
Choir of Westminster Abbey
James ODonnell (organ)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 November, 2004
Venue: Westminster Abbey, London
“Birtwistle Games” came to an appropriate conclusion in the vast and timeless surrounds of Westminster Abbey. For a couple of hours the world outside stopped as divergent musics converged. A Birtwistlian sense of ritual and perspective held sway, the antiphonal arrangement for the brass groups of Sonance 2000 beginning the evening in solemn, imposing and craggy style.
The Tudor anthems were apposite to the occasion, the building, and to Birtwistle himself, the ‘ancient’ Latin language another strata to one’s perception of history and influence, the musical effect profound, especially in the Byrd and far-reaching Tye, boys’ and men’s voices offering purity of timbre.
The Motets from Birtwistle’s opera “The Last Supper” proved integral with the Tudor music, being harmonically radiant and bristling with commentary; quite beautiful, and performed with from-afar translucence by the BBC Singers under Stephen Layton. The remaining anthems, set in English, introduced a lighter touch, ebullience, and simple, beautiful refrains. Gibbons’s anthem was carol-like and gently curvaceous. The last Birtwistle piece to be heard in “Games” was for a line of brass heard from on-high, Tenebrae David, gnarled and clawing with its own built-in acoustic. The brass players from the Royal Academy of Music under James Watson were confident advocates for Birtwistle’s engrossing sense of theatre.
The second half interspersed Messiaen’s organ Messe de la Pentecôte with the three movements of a Missa by Pierre de Manchicourt (c.1510-1564), a less-happy amalgam, but much hinges on one’s reaction to Messiaen. Apart from some celestial interludes in the (overlong) ‘Offertoire’, there seems too much onomatopoeia and too many noises-off; maybe James O’Donnell (earlier an economical conductor of the anthems) could have lifted the Hindu rhythms more, but there’s no doubt he opened up the organ’s power and flourish in the concluding ‘Sortie’. The contrapuntal richness of Manchicourt’s a cappella settings were mellifluously addressed by the BBC Singers, the serene ‘Agnus Dei’ being lucidly blended and perfectly floated.
An inspiring evening, one that in many ways epitomises the threads and links that contribute to the individual stature of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s significant oeuvre.