Sir Harrison Birtwistle Makes His Mark on the This is Rattle Festival



This is Rattle: Varèse, Machaut, Byrd and Birtwistle: BBC Singers; Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 23.9.2017. (CC)

Varèse  Octandre

Guillaume de Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame with Plainsong Tropes arranged for instruments by Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Byrd – Lamentations

Birtwistle – Pulse SamplerThe Moth Requiem

There was phenomenal programming in this Birtwistle-curated programme. The great man himself appeared in interview with BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley, relaxed, open and even funny (a far cry from the almost monosyllabic Southbank pre-concert interviews of the 1980s). The programme itself leapfrogged whole swathes of time, the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries rubbing shoulders with the now, nowhere more so than in the Machaut/Birtwistle “collaboration”.

First, though, came Varèse’s Octandre for flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass. One can see how Birtwistle must admire this uncompromising music – Birtwistle’s music pulls no punches, after all. Solos from Melinda Maxwell (oboe), double-bass (Peter Buckoke) and bassoon (Ursula Leveaux) were particularly noteworthy, as was the sheer volume of noise eight players can generate at the work’s close. There was no doubt we had arrived in the twentieth century.

Birtwistle’s composed instrumental interpolations (plainsong tropes) for Machaut’s beautiful Messe de Notre Dame worked brilliantly. Milton Court was hardly a cathedral acoustic, but the BBC Singers sang brilliantly. The sound was somewhat raw and forceful in the ‘Kyrie’ For Birtwistle, the stated appeal of Machaut’s piece is that it presents “simplicity and complexity at the same time,” and one can see how this reflects Birtwistle’s own approach. Birtwistle’s interpolations extended from the influence of America to the more expected monumentalism, here concentrated into just a minute or two. The choir and ensemble performed together only in the final section, ‘Ite missa est’, the added vibraphone on the final chord an inventive touch.

The hour-long first half led to another extended stretch post-interval. This was a hard-hitting concert, but one would expect nothing less from Birtwistle.

William Byrd’s Lamentations may not even be complete, as some of the score might have been lost. The Lamentations of Jeremiah is a glorious text here set to glorious music, its flowerings tempered by contrapuntal complexity. In his interview, Birtwistle hinted that Machaut’s rawness held more appeal for him, yet the beauty here was undeniable. The move to the 1981 Pulse Sampler piece was stark, however. The oboist (Melinda Maxwell) has virtually no space to breathe, let alone turn pages so the score was laid across several music stands. She faced the audience; percussionist Richard Benjafield had his back to us, playing a variety of percussion (this was the “expanded” scoring including Chinese tom-tom and log drum – the original was for oboe and claves). Birtwistle’s sense of drama was writ large in performance, the two parts seemingly independent except at a couple of points, yet dependent upon each other to navigate this complex soundworld. Maxwell looked exhausted at the end. Birtwistle himself moved to the stage, applauding enthusiastically all the time in appreciation of the efforts of his players.

Finally, The Moth Requiem for women’s voices, alto flute and three harps. Lasting around 20 minutes, this recent piece will surely be one of Birtwistle’s enduring masterpieces. Inspired both by Birtwistle’s fascination for the moth and by a poem by Robin Blaser, with whom he collaborated for The Last Supper, in which an unidentified sound eventually turns out to be the sound of a moth trapped in a piano. The alto flute, impeccably played by Philippa Davies, offers a thread weaving through the score. The three harps are used to deliver a vast range of sounds, including imitating the moth of the poem (via knocking) as well as aggression via loud rhythmic chords. The singers list the Latin names of moths now extinct – the requiem element. The piece is impeccably scaled, not a moment too long, its effect deep and lasting. The BBC Singers gave an impassioned, dedicated reading that will last long in the memory. The BBC Singers have, incidentally, recorded the work for Signum Classics (review).

Martyn Brabbins is known for his immersion in contemporary repertoire, and he was a sure guide throughout.

Colin Clarke

The concert will be broadcast on Friday, September 29th on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm.

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