Nights Black Bird [UK premiere]
* In Darkness Let me Dwell
The Shadow of Night
Symphony No. 9 in C (Great)
The Cleveland Orchestra
* Andrew Watts (countertenor) & Yair Avidor (lute)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 25 August, 2004
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
One wonders why two Birtwistle nocturnes and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony were partnered. Both of Birtwistle’s scores, two of his most contemplative, were written for the Cleveland Orchestra, The Shadow of Night commissioned by Christoph von Dohnányi for his final season as Music Director (2001-2), and Night’s Black Bird was requested by the Lucerne Festival, its premiere just four days before this UK one.
The 16th/17th-century English composer John Dowland connects the Birtwistle diptych. The Shadow of Night (the title courtesy of George Chapman’s poem) is musically linked to a Dowland lute song, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”, while “night’s black bird” appears in a text set in another Dowland song, “Flow My Tears”. Birtwistle’s Night’s Black Bird is effectively a concentrated exploration of his The Shadow of Night, the composer subsequently finding more possibilities in the bigger, 24-minute original. To underline this relationship, Night’s Black Bird begins and ends identically to the earlier work.
This viewing of material from different angles is one of Harrison Birtwistle’s hallmarks. Surprisingly, the 12-minute new work was played first. Yet hearing the original, larger score second seemed an integral part of the Birtwistlian scheme of changing perspectives: that is, returning to where we had previously been to undertake the journey again having in the meantime been somewhere else that was both different but familiar. This presupposes that one had already heard The Shadow of Night: Dohnányi gave the UK premiere of this at the 2003 Proms.
Sadly, this concert played to a half-filled hall. One is dismayed by the public’s lack of enterprise, but it’s good to report that those that came along sat and listened, seemingly spellbound. Hardly a cough or rustle disturbed the unbroken 40-minute sequence, the Dowland song forming a central panel (as envisaged by Birtwistle when both pieces are played together), countertenor and lutenist (at the back of the hall) calling as if from centuries ago, yet the two musics seemed indivisible. Birtwistle’s ‘night music’ is no more ‘difficult’ than Bartók’s even allowing Birtwistle’s heightened use of dissonance and the superimposition of musical layers.
These Cleveland Orchestra performances were exceptional in the standard of preparation and realisation; every strand of sound seemed relevant and the playing possessed confidence and commitment as well as an unanimous refinement at one with Birtwistle’s lucidity that created a compelling atmosphere to drew the audience into Birtwistle’s hypnotic intensity.
Such fabulous playing also informed Welser-Möst’s rhythmically vital Schubert – much to treasure and some things to raise an eyebrow over. The opening horn playing could not have been more secure, golden-toned or magically floated, but the first movement’s coda, a swifter view of the same material (a link with Birtwistle!) was an inconsequential blur. In between such sublime and ridiculous bookends the first movement was an allegro of subtle pointing but not without inflexibility or relentlessness. The Andante con moto was exactly as described; there was a certain gravitas if not a bigger dimension than the notes on the page. But how well timed the acceleration into catharsis, and how emotionally numb and tonally drained the cellos’ soliloquy in its aftermath. Extraordinary! The scherzo muscled along fairly blandly, timpani lacking definition, and the trio was ‘worked’ just a little too much, one or two ‘odd’ harmonies suggesting an editor had passed through recently, pen in hand. Surprisingly, the finale was a glorious under-tempo lollop, in the Barbirolli and Knappertsbusch mould, Welser-Möst giving his orchestra time to point rhythms and interact in the most gratifying way. Such Viennese warmth continued with the Pizzicato Polka jointly composed by Strausses Johann II and Josef – a rendition of wit, style and affection.