Harrison Birtwistle [Semper Dowland, semper dolens … The Corridor]

Semper Dowland, semper dolens: Theatre of Melancholy [London premiere]
The Corridor – a scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments [London premiere]

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)

Helka Kaski & Thom Rackett (dancers)

Members of London Sinfonietta
Ryan Wigglesworth

Peter Gill – Director
Alison Chitty – Designer
Paul Pyant – Lighting
Lorna Heavey – Video art & projection designer

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 6 July, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ryan Wigglesworth. Photograph: alliedartists.co.ukOne wonders if there is ever to be an end to the inventiveness of Sir Harrison Birtwistle; one hopes not. This was a tremendously stimulating evening comprising two very contrasting works, both of which examined the concept of lost love from various angles. Birtwistle conceived them as companion pieces, as what he describes as “a sort of theatrical representation of melancholy.”

“Semper Dowland, semper dolens” is Birtwistle’s arrangement of John Dowland’s “Seaven Teares” for five-part string consort augmented (subtly) by clarinet (plus bass), and flute (plus alto and piccolo) interspersed with several Dowland songs that add a sense of dramatic narrative. Birtwistle essentially takes Dowland into more-modern instrumentation but he treats Dowland’s musical surfaces respectfully, although a hyper-fragmentary opening initially suggests this may not be the case. It could have acted as a gateway into Birtwistle’s own world; instead, there follows a sequence of Lachrimae each followed by a Dowland song, every one beautifully sung by Mark Padmore (if with the occasional touch of too much air) and accompanied by a harp. Birtwistle’s interventions do increase as the piece progresses (and emotions intensify) but there is nevertheless an overall sense of respect for Dowland’s originals.

The harp as surrogate lute worked splendidly in context. The two dancers, Helka Kaski and Thom Rackett, mirrored the beauty of the music perfectly; a black-and-white projection of fragments adding to the overriding feeling of melancholy. Perhaps the most affecting performance was that of the song, ‘Sorrow Stay’, its fragmentary, lonely stillness reducing the capacity audience to silence.

Harrison Birtwistle“The Corridor”, with libretto by Birtwistle’s regular collaborator David Harsent, is from the Orpheus myth. As Birtwistle puts it: “The climax comes in the first quarter of the piece, the moment when Orpheus turns – and it is downhill from there, literally. The whole piece is based on this one event, magnified, like a photographic blow-up.” It is this moment of Rückblick that means that Orpheus loses Eurydice forever. Birtwistle calls this piece “virtuosic chamber theatre”.

In this staging, a red strip across the front of the stage represents the corridor and, indeed, the journey; the instrumentalists are visible, too, while projected images on a screen are used to mesmeric effect. Birtwistle’s scoring mirrors that of “Semper Dowland”: violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet and harp.

Soprano Elizabeth Atherton took the part of Woman/Eurydice, as well as the singer who comments on the action. She sings normally when in character and uses a rhythmic, formalised speech when she comments outside of it. Birtwistle’s vocal lines can be very melismatic, and his gestures only add to the drama (as when repeated harp chords act as a markers). Atherton has the lion’s share here, and she sang superbly, with impeccable stamina and control. The players, too, are involved in the action, as Eurydice interacts with them, and they turn to look at her, momentarily personifying The Shades. The feeling is that the Orpheus myth is everywhere – perhaps, most importantly, inside us all. It is unavoidable, Birtwistle seems to be saying. Padmore as Man/Orpheus has less to do, but delivered beautifully.

The members of the London Sinfonietta were in their element, a performance of the highest possible standard. The music is infinitely stimulating, as are the concepts Birtwistle introduces. Repeated listening of these two works in tandem is fervently recommended; one awaits recordings with bated breath.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content