Harrison Birtwistle is one of the major musical figures internationally and this concert sees BCMG and Oliver Knussen showcase works from across his career in his 80th birthday year.
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.
Birtwistle’s music has been an important influence for Tansy Davies. Premiered by these forces in May 2012, Davies’ funky, hyperactive and sumptuously scored piano concerto Nature has already enjoyed repeat performances by both BCMG and other ensembles.
Harrison Birtwistle: Tragoedia
Tansy Davies: Nature ~ (BCMG Sound Investment commission 2012)
Fantasia on all the notes
4 Poems by Jaan Kaplinski *
Conductor: Oliver Knussen
Soprano: Katrien Baerts *
Piano: Huw Watkins ~
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group really played to its strengths in this programme celebrating the 80th birthday of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, bringing performances under the authoritative, understated direction of Oliver Knussen (why no knighthood for him yet?) which both puzzled and delighted. Between all the Birtwistle pieces we heard a repeat (there’s a welcome word in contemporary music) of Tansy Davies’ 2012 “Sound Investment” commission Nature, and it certainly lives up to its title. Submarine gurglings gradually surface, birdsong chirps, piano and harp snuggle nocturnally as we move towards a magical ending.
I hope Sir Harrison Birtwistle doesn’t run a mile from birthday parties, for in his 80th year he’s getting rather a lot of them. At any rate the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s concert gave him the best possible present, with bejewelled performances of classics and rarities conducted by Oliver Knussen.
From Knussen’s degree of precision and delicacy you would think he was handling Boulez or Ravel, not a composer thought to have written only ornery screeches bluntly carved out of granite. Boulez bubbled up anyway in the 1965 Tragoedia, an early milestone fascinating now as much for its display of influences as for the footprints of Birtwistle himself.
Blocks of material, shuffled and repeated; angular lyricism; one instrumental group fighting another: we heard the same elements, fused with greater force, in that pulsing masterpiece Silbury Air. A particularly virile account, this: Julian Warburton’s drumming almost punched holes in the roof. The Purcell-inspired Fantasia on All the Notes, meanwhile, made its best impression tiptoeing toward silence at the end like a mechanism winding down.
Less joy arrived with the two vocal items. There’s no need to criticise Dutch soprano Katrien Baerts. Even Orpheus would find eloquence difficult flinging his voice on to jagged rocks where almost all words are inaudible. The 1969 Cantata, spun from ancient Greek fragments, stayed prickly and obdurate. Lyricism fought back in the later Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski, but didn’t quite win.
Just one piece in the programme showed us a composer luxuriating in notes. That was Tansy Davies in her 2012 BCMG commissionNature, with Huw Watkins’ springing piano gestures valiantly trying to carve a path through the ensemble’s nocturnal jungle. A bewitching piece, and brilliantly played.
Information No.0121 616 2616
CBSO Centre is equipped with adapted toilet facilities, key signposting in Braille and the hall is fitted with an infra-red amplification system (receivers are available on request). Limited free parking can be arranged on request.
Access to CBSO Centre’s concert hall, bar and toilets is all flat, with no steps or ramps. The hall configuration is flexible, meaning we can accommodate specific seating requests.
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