It is with deepest sadness we repost this article: the death of Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022), the real true giant of British music of the twentieth-century, was announed over the weekend, on April 18: he waas 87 years old. Few if any English composers have upheld modernism so consistently, have spoken from the heart so blisteringly, and enjoyed such international currency. For myself, teh world premieres of Earth Dances (Festival Hall) and the first run of The Mask of Orpheus at ENO in the 1980s were particularly formative, unforgettable events.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle has enjoyed a long0standing relationship with the famous Nash Ensemble, dating back to around 1965, the time of the ensemble's formation.
Most of the works on this disc date from around the last decade - only Pulse Sampler takes us back to the 1980s (1981, to be precise), but even that is heard in a new version for oboe and percussion (as opposed to the original sol instrument and claves).
Birtwistle's music is highly individual, something we hear straight away in the 2011 Trio for violin, cello and piano. In no way is Birtwistle's writing "traditional" - he treats piano and strings as individual entities until near the end of the piece. The acoustic of King's Place, London seems perfect for Birtwistle's music - we hear everything (also thanks to Simon Fox-Gál's recording, of course), but the sound is in no way over-dry. The performance is predictably as expert as one could want. The performers are Lawrence Power (most associated with the viola, he plays the violin here), Adrian Brendel on cello and the talented young pianist Tim Horton.
The Duet for Eight Strings was written in 2018. Scored for viola and cello (hence the "eight strings:"), this is its World Premiere recording, and it is performed by Lawrence Power (now on viola) and Adrian Brendel. The composer has described this as a "string quartet for two players". It is an in memoriam - for Michael Miller, the late husband of the Nash Ensemble's Artistic Director, Amelia Freedman. It is hyper-gestural, with repeated chords giving the sense of a slow, ongoing processional (a constant in Birtwistle's music) punctuated by aphoristic, otherworldly passages. Technically, the score requires great control from the players, something that the present performers have no issues with:
... although Birtwistle's music always benefits from live performance, so here's the Swiss premiere, with Lawrence Power here joined on that occasion by Daniel Haefliger:
The excellence of oboist Melinda Maxwell is very much a given, and her performance of Pulse Sampler in its 2018 version (with that expanded percussion) is remarkable. The original was written in 1981, with line (oboe) and pulse (percussion) interacting in a most creative way: the percussionist chooses the tempo for each section, choosing from an array of pulses. Again, there is a moment of brief togetherness in among the prevailing disjunction. It remains a tremendously exciting piece. It was Maxwell who gave the World Premiere of the original at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, 1981. Here' s the new version:
... and here's a 2012 recording by Maxwell, also with Richard Benjafield:
The oboe remains the solo instrument for the 2009/10 Oboe Quartet (for oboe, violin - Benjamin Nabarro - viola - Lawrence Power - and cello - Adrian Brendel). There are sime surpringly long melodic lines for violin in the first movement, almost cantabile. As so often with Birtwistle, the piece starts from the pitch class of E, a trait which has been noted by many commentators. The aching expressivity of the second movement is caught beautifully in this performance:
The penultimate movement is really quite disturbing in its loneliness - barren is the only word. The oboe only plays four notes (three of them E natural!):
Perhaps in the finale we can hear a shadow of Stravinsky in the ostinatos. The music veers towards the violent, and lurches manically. Heard in a performance such as this, it makes for devastating listening:
A superb disc - the Nash Ensemble reminds us of their place at the top of the chamber tree, while Birtwistle's music remains as uncompromising and brilliant as ever.Birtwistle Chamber Music (Amazon)