Gawain Marks Birtwistle’s 80th Birthday

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Harrison Birtwistle at 80: Gawain (concert performance):Soloists, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Barbican Hall, London, 16.5.2014. (JPr)

Leigh Melrose: Gawain
Sir John Tomlinson: The Green Knight
Laura Aikin Morgan: Le Fay
Jennifer Johnston: Lady de Hautdesert
Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts: King Arthur
John Graham Hall: A Fool
Rachel Nicholls: Guinevere
William Towers: Bishop Baldwin
Ivan Ludlow: Agravain
Robert Anthony Gardiner: Ywain

John Lloyd Davies: director
Sound Intermedia: sound design
Aqamera: projections

It is apparently well known that at the première in 1968 of Harrison Birtwistle’s first opera Benjamin Britten walked out in protest. He has been regarded for some time by many as the doyen of living British composers and well deserves his current eightieth birthday tribute at the Barbican.

Born in Lancashire and very proud of his roots, he began as a clarinettist playing in amateur ensembles in his home town of Accrington. Apparently in 1965 he sold his clarinets before devoting all his energies to composition, later studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music. After Britten died in 1976 Birtwistle’s music gained more and more admirers and he was soon recognised as the foremost composer of his generation, despite the strong challenge from his contemporary, Peter Maxwell Davies, who like Birtwistle championed all the contemporary musical innovations that were originating elsewhere in Europe. Birtwistle was knighted in 1988 and for the past 50 years his works in a variety of genres have spoken their own language and are not reliant on a particular compositional idiom. His music does all the talking necessary for this famously self-effacing Lancastrian.

Gawain was premièred at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1991 and although it has been revised several times subsequently was here performed with the original cuts restored. David Harsent’s libretto is based on a medieval heroic epic about a quest that will enhance the reputation of King Arthur’s Court. Typical of such Arthurian legends, it gives us dutiful, virtuous and brave knights, gloomy castles, spooky nocturnal apparitions and women with magical powers, as well as personal doubt, political intrigue and amorous encounters. Most minds here will turn to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and clearly Gawain almost provides a backstory to Wagner’s Parsifal though I am not certain whether Birtwistle or his admirers will accept this connection. Possibly yes, possibly no; but since the part of the Green Knight was especially written for one of the greatest Wagnerian singers of this generation – the force of nature that is Sir John Tomlinson – as well as odd bars of Wagner heard during the evening then suggesting that Gawain is Birtwistle’s Parsifal is probably correct. Just like in Parsifal, there is a dichotomy in Gawain’s world between Christianity and Paganism, and during his quest he learns through his own moral weakness that the world is an evil, complex place. Unlike Parsifal, who is redeemed by an attempted act of seduction, Gawain ends up as a broken man.

The plot is fairly straightforward: on the night before Christmas the Green Knight arrives unannounced at King Arthur’s castle. He challenges the court to an act of seemingly unequal combat as he offers to accept a blow from his axe to his head on condition that he may inflict a similar blow in a year and a day’s time. Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the stranger. However, the Green Knight gets up again straight away, reminds Gawain of his obligation, and leaves as mysteriously as he had appeared. After the passing of the intervening year Gawain journeys to the castle of the Green Knight in order to defend his honour. Birtwistle had Harsent highlight some of the ritualistic aspects of the old legend of Gawain in his libretto: the Green Knight announces his appearance at the castle gate by knocking three times; Gawain rests for three nights at the court of Bertilak (who actually is the Green Knight) and his amorous wife; Gawain is kissed, once, twice, and three times; and when he encounters Gawain a second time – the Green Knight also raises the axe three times to strike the deadly blow.

It a kaleidoscopic score with two Birwistlean highlights; Act I ends with a cycle of the seasons (heard in full on this evening), symbolically portraying Gawain’s preparation for his confrontation with the Green Knight, whilst the pivotal moment in Act 2 is a cycle of lullabies, hunting scenes and seductions in which Gawain realises how few of the knightly virtues for which he is famed he actually possesses when he is preyed upon – while her husband is doing his own hunting – by the beautiful Lady de Hautdesert. The ‘Turning of the Seasons’ cycle is something that would work as a standalone piece, each part has a light and a dark phase, day and night, each with its own solemn ritual as well as a riddle from the Fool. We hear ‘So the world turns … season to season … sunrise to sunrise’ time and again and it is a potent metaphor for the peril of Gawain’s quest and its vanity that the character is unaware of at the time. Self-awareness arises only during the second cycle when he shamed by his ignoble actions.

This was advertised as ‘a new concert staging by John Lloyd Davies’ and that could mean a lot of things. Here we had an elaborate set-up on the platform of the Barbican Hall that, with its garishly lit music stands,  screens for mood-setting projections and pyramid shapes, looked like either a big band concert for Frank Sinatra or Shirley Bassey … or a masonic event. There was a lot of green lighting and dry ice for the Green Knight; also a helmet, an axe, a sword, crowns and sashes. The latter were tangerine for Arthur and Guinevere, red and blue for the knights and the green one with which Lady de Hautdesert brands Gawain for his failure to remain chaste. Because it was a long evening with over three and a quarter hours of music the minimal action was better than everyone being in concert dress behind their music stands. Then again, only Sir John Tomlinson knew his part in its entirety and too often his colleagues had to resort to singing from their scores and the dramatic tension tended to slump during these moments.

Another recurring image was the silhouette of a windmill (wind turbine?) projected on the back of the stage, though I was uncertain what this signified. At the end Morgan le Fay, the almost ever-present narrator of the sub-text to what we see and hear, sings ‘Look in your mirror; you might see the image of someone retreating before your face. Think only of dreams and promises’ and this is reflected in the mirror that the Fool has often used during the earlier action. Mummery is mentioned a lot in the libretto and there was a lot of this seen on the platform. However I liked very much how the coup de grâce Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert gave to the animals he hunted was mirrored in the contortions of his wife.

The dramatic action is set against some wonderfully angular and atmospheric sounds from Birtwistle’s orchestra. As Christopher Cook’s programme note says; ‘Listening to and watching Gawain we need to set aside our preconceptions about music that seeks to charm and seduce, dampen the expectations aroused by what we remember of traditional musical structures and relish the fact that the centre of musical gravity in the various ensembles that Birtwistle composes for has shifted from the strings to the brass and the woodwind. This is a musician who was born in Accrington and whose earliest musical experiences were playing in a brass band.’ There is much percussion, including a prominent cimbalom, and, not surprisingly, some whooping brass. The BBC Symphony Orchestra tackled the score’s demands fearlessly under Martyn Brabbins’ taut control. They were amplified it seems and it was not their fault, I suspect, that passages seemed incessantly loud at times, especially during Act I.

The BBC Singers contributed some haunting sounds from offstage. The solo singers are tested to the extreme because of the intensity of Birtwistle’s writing and Rachel Nicholls as Guinevere was found wanting early on whilst Laura Aikin, as Morgan le Fay, tackled her increasingly high-lying role with amazing assurance. Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts brought a Peter Grimes-like forcefulness to his role with its oft-repeated ‘Who’s brave?’ Leigh Melrose was increasingly believable and moving in the title role, Jennifer Johnston a compelling pleasure-seeking Lady de Hautdesert and John Graham-Hall Fool’s often reached the manic heights of Wagner’s Mime who gets his own riddles in Siegfried. It is John Tomlinson in the noble voice we are very familiar with that overshadows all around him. Wielding his axe, he looked like Old Father Time. He wisely harnesses his resources yet perversely seems to give his all throughout and it is a marvel how few passages defeat him, even at the age of 67.  I wonder just how well Gawain can work without him.

Happy Birthday Sir Harrison Birtwistle!

Jim Pritchard

For all more about the Birtwistle celebrations visit This Gawain will be broadcast in Live in Concert on Tuesday 15 July on BBC Radio 3.

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