A Refreshing Combination of Birtwistle and Carter but Adams Intrudes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle, Carter, and Adams: Nash Ensemble, BBC Singers, Nicholas Kok (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.3.2014 (MB)

BirtwistleFantasia upon all the notes (2012)
CarterEnchanted Preludes (1988)
Esprit rude/Esprit doux (1985)
John AdamsShaker Loops (1978)
CarterMosaic (2004)
BirtwistleThe Moth Requiem (2012)


A funny programme this: not the combination of Harrison Birtwistle and Elliott Carter, for they provided refreshing, invigorating contrast, but the presence of John Adams’s Shaker Loops, which really did not seem to have anything to do with either, and whose poverty of invention sounded all the more glaring in such august company. I am not sure how long it lasted, but it seemed interminable; waiting for the music to start proved a futile experience. Doubtless whatever objections one may level will be countered with an all too easy ‘but that is the point’. ‘Process music’ is all well and good – well, perhaps – in theory, but this does not even have the courage to be truly unbearable, in the ‘Yes, I’ll confess, just please let me out’ mode of Philip Glass. It seems more soft-centred, more pandering, and yet ultimately there seems to be nothing but a vacuum at the centre. The seven string players – two violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass – of the Nash Ensemble could not be faulted in the incisive commitment of their response under Nicholas Kok. How on earth one keeps one’s concentration in such conditions I do not know. Still, at least it was good to be reminded of the æsthetic nullity of music too insubstantial even for a Michael Nyman soundtrack.

Enough of that! Birtwistle’s 2012 Fantasia upon all the notes, for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, was given its world premiere by the Nash Ensemble, also at the Wigmore Hall. Its title does not refer, as one might have expected, to Purcell, but rather, in Bayan Northcott’s words, ‘hints at how, each time the harpist shifts a pedal between sharp, natural, or flat, a new scale is set up, and … how a shifting sequence of harp modes can interact with and guide the harmonies of a surrounding ensemble’. That said, there remains a typical, if somewhat intangible, evocation of an older England: real, not sepia-tinted, all the more moving for it. And beyond that, there is a still more typical sense of the archaic, Birtwistle’s sound world – the phrase may be clichéd, but here seems unavoidable – announcing itself unmistakeably at the very opening. Ghosts haunt the machine: is that a hint of Ravel’s Daphnis? (The work was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble and the Wigmore Hall, to fulfil Amelia Freedman’s desire for a companion piece to Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.)  There certainly seem to be points of contact with, though not necessarily derivation from, Birtwistle’s own Punch and Judy and, of course, Stravinsky. But the ecstatic climax sounded here, again in an exemplary performance, as very much part of a post-Minotaur world. The final unwinding returns us ambiguously to a world of earlier mechanisation: almost like a parody of Webern.

Carter’s Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello followed, thereby sounding more mercurial, even flighty, though certainly substantial. It emerged as a true duet (not unlike Bach’s fascinating, strange BWV 802-5 pieces). Shifting of mood, for instance to slower material, adorned with cello harmonics, was highly accomplished. And the composer’s own genius in transformation of material shone through throughout – redolent, perhaps surprisingly, of Liszt. Esprit rude/esprit doux, for flute and clarinet, was written for Boulez’s sixtieth birthday. It sounds closer to Boulez – not just in the instrumentation, but also in the clarinet’s apparent announcement of reconciliation between Schoenberg and Stravinsky: Pierrot and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Again, it proved a real duet, in a truly haunting performance.

Following Adams’s piece and the interval, Carter returned with Mosaic, for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio, and double bass, another Nash Ensemble commission. Perhaps the presence of the harp could not fail to evoke the Stravinsky of Symphony in Three Movements, yet that haunting was again not simply a matter of instrumentation, but also of musical mechanisms. Soon, however, the material and its development takes a very different path. One sensed, even without necessarily knowing precisely what they were, the guiding presence of the ‘unusual developments in harp technique … too infrequently explored in recent times’ by Carlos Salzedo, whom Carter cited as an inspiration. Bursting with invention in more than one sense, Bach and Haydn did not seem so very far away either. Full of magical twists and turns, new vistas, there might also perhaps be sensed a distant kinship with the world of Romanticism. And, even if less overtly than Birtwistle, Carter also imparts – again, keenly realised in this excellent performance – a sense of unfolding drama. Instruments may sometimes be imagined almost to be characters, sometimes as narrators, sometimes as expression of character and narration. And yes, in the panoply of tesserae-like sounds, a mosaic was constructed – whether entirely or no – before our ears. Wonderful!

Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem, for twelve female singers, three harps, and alto flute, was premiered in Amsterdam, coming to the Proms last year. I must have been away, for I cannot imagine that I should otherwise have missed it. At any rate, it received a highly accomplished performance. Interested in the mysterious beauty of moths from his teenager years Birtwistle offers a magical lament, which appears both to summon up childhood and yet also to touch upon death. A list of moth names – Scopula immorata, Depressaria discipunctella, Leucodonta bicolaria … – coexists with, is confronted by The Moth Poem (2006) by Robin Blaser, librettist for The Last Supper. (John Fallas, in his programme note, made a telling connection with the a cappella interludes from that work.) The nocturnal ‘moth in the piano’ makes itself felt, yet we are haunted by a melancholy induced by knowledge of the deaths of a number of those species. The alto flute, here played by the excellent Philippa Davies, seems almost to echo – whether intentionally or otherwise – the fairy world of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet, whatever the fantastical element, the hieratic, incantatory, perhaps surprisingly homophonic choral writing is at least equally important, once again expressing an archaic sense of loss. It is – and, in performance, was – one of the most striking acts of remembrance I have heard in quite a while: not, perhaps, entirely removed from the world of Stockhausen, or at least our memories thereof. Moreover, in its once-again-undefinable sense of ‘Englishness’, spirits one might have thought less than kindred – Britten, Vaughan Williams – seem also intangibly to incorporated into backstory and present. At the end, we had experienced both the sadness of loss and the exhilaration of experience.

Mark Berry

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