Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall – Sir Harrison Birtwistle 75th-Birthday Concert

Five Distances
Oboe Quartet [World premiere of intermediate version]
The Woman and the Hare
Duets for Storab
Poems of Louis Zukofsky [UK premiere]

Claire Booth (soprano)

Julia Watson (reciter)

Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend [Tragoedia]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 March, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash Ensemble. ©Maurice J. BeznosThe Nash Ensemble had assembled a balanced and thought-provoking concert for its belated marking of Harrison Birtwistle’s 75th-birthday (he was born in 1934). Matters of spatial balance and symmetry were everywhere in evidence in a demanding programme that commenced with Five Distances (1992), whose sequence of ‘movements’ was no less striking for its Stravinskian juxtaposition than for its Ivesian intricacy of discourse; facets which were well conveyed here, not least when the Wigmore Hall platform yielded an unexpectedly wide separation so that the interplay of the wind quintet was heard to full advantage.

If the Oboe Quartet (2010) suggest a more classical or at least classicising impulse, the rhythmic dexterity and harmonic pungency of its two completed movements were hardly atypical Birtwistle. Between them, a brief interlude enticed the ear with its austere chords and speculative gestures – almost a present-day take on the figured bass sequences by which Baroque composers induced the performers to extemporize their own contribution – but in this instance, a fully elaborated one will be forthcoming. For now, Gareth Hulse and colleagues did justice to this intriguing work-in-progress.

As did Claire Booth to the tightly interwoven recitatives and arias in the settings of David Harsent that constitute “The Woman and the Hare” (1999). Best known in this context as librettist of “Gawain” and “The Minotaur”, Harsent the poet seemed a good deal more elusive – though a sense of encroaching catastrophe and lingering tragedy came through strongly; not wholly a ‘sung cycle’, however, as the recitatives are spoken – in this instance by Julia Watson, though her plangent delivery was marred by amplification that gave her voice a different acoustical context from that of the other musicians.

Birtwistle’s output has never been short of smaller-scale pieces: one of the most attractive is Duets for Storab (1983) with which he bid farewell to the Hebridean island of Raasay and whose evocation of place is much to the fore in these six miniatures for two flutes – elegantly rendered by Philippa Davies and Ian Clarke. The Wigmore Hall platform was again utilised so that their contributions were set well apart – as if two birds making contact from a distance. A minor work, but one no less characteristic than the vast opera “The Mask of Orpheus”, its final act taking shape at much the same time.

Heard immediately before the final piece, Elliott Carter’s “Poems of Louis Zukofsky” (2009) provided the necessary reflection. Taking nine texts by the under-appreciated (at least outside the United States) writer and ranging from thirty seconds to three minutes, the typically compressed settings found soprano and clarinet pursuing a refracted dialogue that deftly mirrored the inward intensity and elusiveness of the poems. Claire Booth was alive to their many expressive subtleties, as was Richard Hosford in a clarinet part which was less accompaniment than a speculative ‘mirror voice’.

It is easy with hindsight to hear Tragoedia (1965) as a dry run for the opera “Punch and Judy”, yet, in its formal layout and its musical expression, this ‘goat dance’ was a radical departure for European music of the era. Without securing the ultimate dynamism, Lionel Friend found real energy in the ‘Parados’ and ‘Exodus’ and inner intensity in the deceptively static central ‘Stasimon’. The ‘Episodion’ either side lacked a little of the arching intensity needed to sustain them but the vital contributions from horn and cello were precisely judged. Tragoedia made an impressive conclusion to a worthwhile concert.

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