Harrison Birtwistle at 75

Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum
Silbury Air
Verses for Ensembles

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 4 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Harrison BirtwistleWhile 1934 has already been examined by this year’s BBC Proms as the year English music lost Delius, Holst and Elgar, it was also a year in which it gained Harrison Birtwistle, and Peter Maxwell Davies. Birtwistle was present to see his early works examined in a 75th-birthday Prom.

The Sinfonietta and Birtwistle have enjoyed a close relationship throughout the ensemble’s forty year history, and these performances bore the stamp of authenticity, given by the players with a keen virtuosity and intensity.

Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum opened the programme, a short but vivid study in musical mechanisms presenting an alternative approach to minimalism. Responding to paintings such as “The Twittering Machine” by Swiss artist Paul Klee, the piece works on small blocks that shift together, rather than adopt the techniques of American composers such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass by using lines running in and out of phase. The musicians caught its changing patterns and vivid colours and David Atherton explored the cross-rhythms together with a depth of sound enhanced by percussion and piano.

David Atherton. Photograph: Ken JacquesThe mysterious Silbury Air followed, inhabiting an altogether different soundworld, the strings enchanting in their textures. As the strange crossover of rhythmic pulses gathered strength so did an increasing sense of angst, the ear detecting both slow and fast movements as the material crossed over. Atherton pitched the performance just right, strangely emotional when the unusually pointed and highly distinctive string motifs made their return near the end.

Verses for Ensembles was commissioned in the London Sinfonietta’s first year, performed under the direction of Atherton in 1969. Birtwistle has more recently talked of his need to make a statement with this extensive single movement, with its “excessively bold orchestration and contrasting ensembles”. Members of these separate groups, their layout helpfully reproduced by the Proms programme, moved freely around the Royal Albert Hall stage, its dimensions ideal for the trumpet fanfares and tricky horn cadenzas. The former were delivered with authority from raised platforms by Paul Archibald and Bruce Noakes, who filled the hall with shrill treble sound, while Michael Thompson gave shape to his awkward melodic lines for the horn. Responding to these were incisive volleys of percussion, superbly marshalled and defined by David Hockings, Alex Neal and Owen Gunnell, whilst in further contrasts the winds offered solemn, throaty chorales, the brass charming with soft wah-wah effects or alarming with aggressive declamations.

Atherton conducted with a characteristically easy authority, and the only regret was that the Royal Albert Hall was not better populated for an ideal introduction to a composer whose music remains challenging, but who, with some effort on the part of the listener, can offer up plentiful rewards. That was most definitely the case here.

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