Happy Birthday, Harry [Bath International MusicFest]

For O, For O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot

Ensemble Bash [For O…]

Behaviour Ensemble

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 31 May, 2009
Venue: Guildhall & Museum of Bath at Work, Bath

As Harrison Birtwistle approaches his 75th-birthday, Bath’s MusicFest took the notion of a ‘birthday bash’ literally by inviting the percussion group Ensemble Bash to join the celebration. Setting the performance of the stunning For O, For O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot in the grand chandeliered context of the Guildhall proved memorable, not least for being the complete antithesis of Carole Cerasi’s recital there earlier in the Festival. Pianissimo doesn’t seem the right description when the instrument is a clavichord but, in retrospect, the contrast between Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with Cerasi and the Birtwistle with Ensemble Bash was even more striking.

For O, For O – scored for six percussionists – takes its title from the dumb-show in Act Three of “Hamlet”, with two players designated the roles of King and Queen who effectively condition much of the way in which Birtwistle’s instructions are realised. With the various unpitched percussion instruments and their players set in a wide hexagon and with the stylised gestures of the King and Queen holding their sticks aloft giving a particular focus to the spectacle, this was a simply riveting performance. The listener’s attention was at once captivated by the essential simplicity and physicality of the percussive attack and by the increasing complexities of the rhythms; meanwhile, sensing the music’s vibrations coming up through the wooden floor added another dimension to the positively visceral experience.

Ensemble Bash’s performance implicitly embraced the elements that are both primitive and immensely sophisticated. The further contradiction of being irrevocably drawn into a dramatic ritual while yet remaining a detached observer made it even more compelling. Perhaps the greatest compliment is that it sent one straight back to Shakespeare to examine the engagements and ambiguities of the scene.

Given Birtwistle’s longstanding preoccupation with the passing of time – metaphorical and actual – his piece Chronometer, dating from 1971, was an ideal piece to perform at this juncture in the composer’s life. Even more inspired was setting the Behaviour Ensemble’s electronic equipment in the wonderfully evocative space that is the Museum of Bath at Work, its beguiling installations of industrial machinery and artisan tools are themselves testimony to man’s working engagement with the rhythm and pulse of time. It is precisely this kind of injection of imagination and audacity that has characterised Joanna MacGregor’s artistic directorship in the 2009 Festival, putting music which is itself not obvious in far-from-obvious venues.

The combining of recordings of Wells Cathedral’s clock and of Big Ben in Chronometer – their ticking mechanisms as well as the chimes – creates layer upon layer the most extraordinary soundscape so that the ear can believe it is hearing the chirrup of the natural world as well as the menace of machines. Here, when the final moments emerge as a ghostly lament, the miracle was that a piece arrived at by inanimate means could evoke such an emotional response.

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