The Barbican’s  ‘Birtwistle at 80’ Celebrations Continue in Fine Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle: Katrien Baerts (soprano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen (conductor). Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 25.5.2014 (MB)

Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Cantata (1969)
Tragœdia (1965)
Monody for Corpus Christi (1959)
Fantasia on all the Notes (2011)
Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski (1991)
Silbury Air (1977)

What a joy it is to attend an intelligently-programmed concert of music, all of it receiving excellence in performance! The latest of the Barbican’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ concerts offered music for ensemble – some with and some without soprano – from throughout the composer’s career. Although not presented chronologically, there was method in the ordering of Birtwistle’s mechanisms, Silbury Air seeming to bring various strands together and certainly offering a fitting climax. So many of Birtwistle’s preoccupations were there – both in the work and, crucially in its performance. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more commanding performance than that given by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Oliver Knussen; it came across as just as much a ‘classic’ as Tragœdia. Landscape, ritual, processional, mechanism, the processes of re-viewing and re-hearing from different standpoints: all were there, all contributed to an overwhelming culmination. Such was the variety of expression, such was the strength of the inner trajectory, that one simply ‘knew’ one was hearing a masterwork. And beneath it all, beneath the ‘invented logic’ of which the composer has spoken, still lay the example of Stravinsky, above all here that of The Rite of Spring. Snatches of sound, elements of cellular writing, and of course the generative precision of rhythm; Stravinsky demeure, as Boulez once put it.

The concert had opened with Cantus Iambeus, which, in context, sounded very much as a curtain-raiser. We heard Birtwistle’s process, not just for the work but perhaps for the concert as a whole, set in motion; Stravinsky, both in rhythm and in colour, remained and inspired. Piano and harp inevitably brought the Symphony in Three Movements to mind, but it was not only a matter of instrumentation. There was drama aplenty, of course, in what seemed almost akin to a miniature tone-poem. This incisive performance enabled us then to take a step back to the 1969 Sappho-derived Cantata, for which the excellent Katrien Baerts joined the players. Sometimes the voice sounded instrumental, sometimes the instruments vocal; sometimes the relationship was more of contrast, sometimes more of affinity. The opening glissandi offered a wonderful case in point. Knussen and his players wrung out an intensity that was well-nigh Schoenbergian; perhaps it was no coincidence that this was a piece written for the Pierrot Players. Birtwistle has in any case rarely sounded so close to ‘Darmstadt’. The closing words, ‘No longer will my mouth utter sounds nor the clapping of hands follow,’ resounded as if a mini-Liebestod, as if refracted through the word-setting of Nono. There was heady, even drunken eroticism, precision enabling rather than detracting from dark expression.

Tragœdia presented the composer more fully still as dramatist – even without words. At the close, one knew one had witnessed and indeed experienced a ritual. The opening ‘Proloue’ offered toughness, violence, the obstinacy of the ostinato; the following ‘Parodos’ sounded again with a more Schoenbergian language than one might necessarily have expected, though there was certainly no denying Stravinsky’s example too. Inevitable ‘traditional’ horn resonances in the first strophe of the ‘Episodion’ – I think in particular of certain intervals – interacted intriguingly with the material, preparing the way for the hieraticism to follow. Birtwistle’s unsentimental melancholy found its true voice in the central ‘Stasimon’, after which the almost Renard-like instrumental exertions of the second ‘Episodion’ sounded as necessary, tragic continuation of the drama, likewise the relative still of its concluding antistrophe. As the ‘Exodos’ had us hear the opening material with new ears, varied and yet somehow the same, I sensed Punch and Judy in the making.

In the second half, Baerts, equally precise and alluring of tone, joined the ensemble twice more, in the early Monody for Corpus Christi and Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the former work, not unlike Cantata, gave obvious hints of Damstadt, not least the flute writing, here in the excellent hands of Elizabeth May. Vocal writing and performance alike offered an extraordinary range of accomplishment; tension and affinity between ‘old’ mediæval and new were our dramatic crucible. Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski proved a revelation in terms of the continuity of composition and performance, its colours cohering mosaic-like: never too easy, but all the more tellingly for the effort involved. In between came Fantasia on all the Notes, which I have now had occasion to hear a few times in concert. Its myriad of colours did not disappoint, nor did the mastery of dramatic construction, leading to the inevitable yet still troubling winding down of the mechanism.

Mark Berry

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