Birtwistle & Brendel

Composer Portrait – Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Refrains and Choruses
Nocturnes, from The Io Passion
Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker

Sir Harrison Birtwistle in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Contemporary Consort of the Royal College of Music

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 43

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Three Brendel Settings [World premiere of the complete set]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

William Dazeley (baritone)

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A memorable, rather special evening, the Harrison Birtwistle portrait a notable part, the climax being Alfred Brendel’s final engagement at the Proms. He’s not retiring; simply he no longer wishes live broadcasts of his performances, and as the Proms are broadcast live…

He signed off with an inimitable account of the ‘Emperor’, after which Proms Director Nicholas Kenyon gave a well-aimed appreciative speech and presented Brendel with a “This is Your Life” collection of programmes documenting Brendel’s four decades of Proms appearances. After a gracious riposte, Brendel played the first of Schubert’s Piano Pieces, D946.

In the V & A, earlier in the evening, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (who turned 70 on 15 July) talked with candour and wit to Andrew McGregor. Refrains and Choruses, for wind quintet, Birtwistle’s first acknowledged work (from 1957) seemed, in this immensely secure performance, individual and fluent, and fresh and spontaneous. Four Nocturnes, for basset clarinet and string quartet, from Birtwistle’s recent The Io Passion, proved memorably atmospheric and displayed in no uncertain terms that ‘less is more’. Each of the epigrammatic Niedecker settings immediately opened up specific worlds. Highly talented performances from the Royal College’s young musicians.

Of Birtwistle’s Three Brendel Settings, the first one (“There is something between us”) had been first heard in 2001 at a Philharmonia Orchestra concert to mark Alfred Brendel’s 70th birthday. The other two (“A sheep addressed me as follows” and “As the Unnamed awoke”) were newly composed to a BBC commission. Under Christoph von Dohnányi, a very sympathetic conductor of Birtwistle’s music, the playing was focussed and the singing of William Dazeley astutely judged, whether in the mystery of the outer songs (the last one adding a characteristic ritualistic aspect) and the actively supported commentary on us humans by a perceptive sheep; this latter proved an enticing, fleet shaving from the Birtwistle canon, and all three settings illuminated an intriguing side to Alfred Brendel’s creativity.

Brahms’s Symphony No.3 is usually considered an autumnal work; here it seemed more Spring-like in its radiance. A difficult work to begin ‘cold’, it was the repeat of the exposition that brought the anticipated tautness of ensemble. With peerless woodwind playing (not least from oboist Gordon Hunt), a beautiful horn solo from Nigel Black, and some silky-sounding strings, this was as ‘beautiful’ an account of a Brahms symphony as one could wish to hear, the middle movements being especially rapt. This symphony can be more rough-hewn, more stormed and stressed, less mellifluously detailed; but given that the opening F-A-F motto seems to represent “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy), Dohnanyi’s linear account seemed entirely appropriate, though I wish he’d ‘conduct’ a few more seconds of silence at the end of quiet-ending movements; all four in this case.

A similarly vital and finely honed response partnered Alfred Brendel. As in the Brahms, this wasn’t orchestral playing designed to reach the periphery of the Royal Albert Hall; fine, it made one listen (again) and one was absorbed (again). Brendel balanced seasoned identification with freshness of response: there were unexpected references to left-hand passages, a rustling of the surface to perk things up, and a refinement of touch and a delicacy of articulation that was often magical; a reminder that the concerto’s ‘royal’ nickname is an unofficial one. The terrific left-hand accent that launched the finale was as demonstrative as Brendel got, almost a trick of the light given the urbanity with which this movement was unfolded.

Life goes on: Brendel, the Philharmonia and Dohnányi perform Beethoven’s C minor concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 September. Brendel’s noteworthy Proms adieu was enhanced by a seriously-listening audience (code for no applause between movements) and the natural, non-distracting lighting of the organ.

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