Nights Black Bird
Symphony No.2 (Le Double)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Radu Lupu (piano)
The Cleveland Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 4 February, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
Harrison Birtwistle was on hand for the New York premiere of Night’s Black Bird, and a capacity audience was in attendance. Many audience members were employees of Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that commissioned the piece. Birtwistle is the first recipient of the Roche Commission, a three-year initiative that unites the pharmaceutical giant with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival and Carnegie Hall, and involves the commissioning and premieres of works by three different composers. Night’s Black Bird was given its world premiere in the summer of 2004 in Lucerne and was then played at the Edinburgh International Festival. (The second Roche-commissioned work, Si Ji (Four Seasons) by Chen Yi, will receive its premiere in Lucerne this August.)
Night’s Black Bird is one of several works Birtwistle has devoted to the theme of nocturnal contemplation. It was written as a companion piece to The Shadow of Night, his previous commission from the Cleveland Orchestra. Both pieces take songs of John Dowland (1563-1626) as their starting point, with Night’s Black Bird differentiated by birdsong. Much of the appeal of the piece lies in its extreme contrasts: slow, dark melodic lines played by muted strings and brass, gradually intensifying and speeding up to moments of great excitement played by the whole orchestra; a lyrical flute solo followed by an eerily wild passage on a clarinet; a whole choir of woodwinds hovering over a texture of dark string sounds; a crash of cymbals and a hammer blow on a large metal tube, followed by a return to a slow tempo and softer dynamics. Welser-Möst and the Cleveland players delivered an intense, sharply focused performance in which the thicker moments of Birtwistle’s orchestration were remarkably transparent.
Transparency and body were also present in the performance of Henri Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, subtitled ‘Le Double’, a reference to the two ensembles called for in the resourceful and inventive score: a large orchestra, and a smaller group of 12 soloists (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, harpsichord, celesta, timpani, and string quartet) seated around the conductor and functioning as a separate group. Although the instrumental set-up suggests a work modeled on the Baroque concerto grosso, with the smaller ensemble acting as a contrasting foil for the larger group, this is not the way the groups are employed by Dutilleux. Throughout the large-scale work, the smaller group imitates and functions as an extension of the larger one, assuming various roles and presenting itself as something at once similar and different to the bigger group, as recurring figures weave a complex web of musical memories. Welser-Möst led the orchestra in a performance characterized by enormous virtuosity and feeling, from the animated opening movement to the bright, exuberant finale.
In Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the smooth partnership of the poetic Radu Lupu and the thoughtful, direct Welser-Möst produced elegant results. Lupu brought out much of the majesty of the score in a performance that combined eloquent understatement with a striking sense of spontaneity. Ears were transfixed in the Adagio, as Lupu shaped the long lines with patience and gently sustained Beethoven’s inner lyricism. The outer movements were less settled or vital. Lupu provided energy and assertiveness where called for, but the poetic grace he applied to the more ruminative passages was more impressive. The orchestra, a Beethoven ensemble of longstanding distinction, offered the strongest backing in a performance characterized by remarkable intimacy and grandeur.