Harrison Birtwistle is one of the major musical figures internationally and this concert sees BCMG and Oliver Knussen take a programme of his works to the Barbican Centre’s newest venue, in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday.
An early breakthrough work, Tragoedia (1965) not only marked Birtwistle out as an independent voice but was also one of the first major scores to draw on what would prove to be a continuing interest in his music – Greek theatre, myth and ritual. Today Tragoedia is a classic of modern chamber repertoire, and like the most recent piece in the programme, Fantasia Upon All the Notes (2012), employs two groups of instruments, winds and strings, which are linked and fused by means of a third force, a harp.
All Birtwistle’s music is in essence a single melodic line that is filled out – a compositional trait that perhaps carried over from his early days as a clarinettist – and nowhere is this more evident than in the soaring lines he wrote in the opera Gawain, and in 4 Poems by Jaan Kaplinski (1991), written in its wake and here sung by rising young Belgian soprano Katrien Baerts.
Another of Birtwistle’s continuing fascinations, the medieval and the mythic, comes to the fore in earlier classic Silbury Air (1977, revised 2003), which takes its inspiration from the prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire..
For this London concert the short but thrilling Cantus Iambeus (2004) for 13 players and the very early Birtwistle composition Monody for Corpus Christi (1959) are added to the Birtwistle works featured in our Birmingham Birtwistle concert on 10 May.
Monody for Corpus Christi *
Fantasia on all the notes
4 Poems by Jaan Kaplinski *
Conductor: Oliver Knussen
Soprano: Katrien Baerts *
Age has suddenly pounced on Harrison Birtwistle, and at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s Sunday-night tribute concert one could sense mingled feelings of surprise, awe and affection in the packed audience. Surprise, that age should have the temerity to turn our leading avant-gardiste into a white-haired, benign figure, receiving our applause. Awe and affection at the sheer magnitude of his achievement, of which this shrewdly planned and beautifully performed concert gave us a birds-eye view.
Knussen’s performance showed that Tragoedia still seems as confrontational now as it must have done at its premiere in 1965, its aggression barely confined within a formal scheme derived from classical tragedy, with cello, horn and harp as the three solo protagonists, and the other instruments acting as a chorus. It paved the way for Birtwistle’s first opera Punch and Judy and launched over a decade of major works, right up to the 1977 ensemble piece Silbury Air. That was there too, at the end of the programme; it’s still one of Birtwistle’s greatest achievements, and Knussen and BCMG delivered it with an edge-of-the-seat sense of mystery and drama.
When Harry met Ollie (both in good form) in the company of the indefatigable BCMG and in the ideal acoustic of Milton Court (uncluttered and truthful) proved to be a terrific evening of challenging and inimitable music – rugged, honest and with deep-earth passion.
What a joy it is to attend an intelligently-programmed concert of music, all of it receiving excellence in performance! The latest of the Barbican’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ concerts offered music for ensemble – some with and some without soprano – from throughout the composer’s career. Although not presented chronologically, there was method in the ordering of Birtwistle’s mechanisms, Silbury Air seeming to bring various strands together and certainly offering a fitting climax.
The highlight of the evening was without doubt the final piece, Silbury Air, so named for Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. Starting from one note, it grew first rhythmically before spreading out across the full ensemble of strings, brass, wind and percussion. Knussen was at his most animated here, and he needed to be, expertly handling complex layering of rhythms. BCMG managed to make this process feel completely organic, building up and receding twice while invoking primal dances, raw spirituality and breathless energy.