Birtwistle’s Rigour and Invention Showcased at King’s Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle: Nicolas Hodges (piano), Christian Dierstein (percussion), Andrew Watts (counter-tenor), Melinda Maxwell (oboe), Helen Tunstall (harp). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 9.1.2013 (MB)

Saraband: The King’s Farewell (2001)
Ostinato with Melody (2000)
Orpheus Elegies (2003-4): Elegies 1, 3, 4, 14, 6, 10, 15, 13, 12, 21, 22, 25, 9, 16, 20, 19
Gigue Machine (2011)
The Axe Manual (2000)

Kings Place is at the moment showing portraits by Adam Birtwistle. His father, meanwhile, was the focus of an excellent concert downstairs in Hall One. First up were two solo piano pieces, Saraband: The King’s Farewell, and Ostinato with Melody. The performances by Nicolas Hodges revealed a good deal that they had in common, of which the perhaps surprisingly post-Schoenbergian harmony was certainly not least. Onward tread and audible musical process were equally to the fore. The latter piece, written for Boulez’s seventy-fifth birthday – I remember the 2000 concert very well – seemed to present a dialectic between certainty and uncertainty, both principles simultaneously immanent. Birtwistle’s stopping and starting proved mechanical in the very best, highly characteristic sense.

Sixteen of the twenty-six Orpheus Elegies, for voice, oboe, and harp, followed. The composer says that they may be performed in any order, provided that number one be performed first, and number nineteen last. What I think of as Birtwistle’s realised archaism – both more real and more archaic than any ‘reconstruction’ – was hauntingly present from the outset. The adjective ‘elegiac’, if verging on the tautological here, really did seem the mot juste, though there is great variation between the elegies, each of which takes a line or sometimes an entire sonnet from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. (How many fine musical works that poet has inspired!) For instance, the opening of no.4 offered a hint of the scherzando following its two predecessors, without disruption to the overarching sound- and dramatical world. Some elegies employ voice; some are merely identified by a line printed in the score. All three musicians, Andrew Watts, Melinda Maxwell, and Helen Tunstall, communicated their parts and the whole with hieratic vividness, the ‘reine Übersteigung’ (not ‘Übersteibing’, as the programme had it), the pure transcendence of Rilke’s first sonnet approached and verging upon instantiation. Watts also had to operate a couple of metronomes in two of the purely instrumental movements, adding after a fashion to Birtwistle’s ritual. The composer’s exploration of expressive capabilities of all three instruments, counter-tenor included, proved as searching and as successful as anyone might expect.

Gigue Machine for solo piano sounded every bit the gigue, every bit the machine. Again, it was Schoenberg – as well, of course as Birtwistle – who sprang to mind, the Baroque re-imaginings of the op.25 Suite reinvented, consciously or otherwise. Mechanical intricacy was the order of the day, both in work and Hodges’s fine performance. Joined by percussionist Christian Dierstein, the pianist proved just as much at home, as did his partner, in an exhilarating account of The Axe Manual. Changing roles and weighting intrigued, percussion seemingly first ‘shadowing’ piano, and then vice versa, though of course it was never quite so straightforward as that; there were always ghosts, and ever-changing ghosts at that, in this machine and its manual. Drums offered a different relationship with piano from that explored with tuned percussion. The piano as an instrument showed itself both invariant and infinitely varied, echoing the certain/uncertain dialectic we had heard in the contemporaneous Ostinato with Melody. Instruments likewise merged and yet remained distinct. Rhythm of course was very much a guiding principle, both to work and performance, but far from the only one; Birtwistle’s melodic gift is every inch as remarkable, every inch as obstinately, bloody-mindedly ‘English’. Yet there has never been anything remotely insular about this country’s greatest composer since Purcell; shades of Stravinsky (Les Noces) and Boulez (Le marteau and, I think, sur Incises) just as apparent and yet just as transformed as ‘Englishness’ or the distant yet present ‘archaic’.

A post-concert discussion was notable primarily for the ease with which, once again, Birtwistle demolished the uncertain, meandering questioning of a certain, well-nigh ubiquitous journalist. The Minotaur now beckons at Covent Garden.

Mark Berry