Something of the Very Essence of Birtwistle in Yan Tan Tethera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Birtwistle: Yan Tan Tethera Soloists, Britten Sinfonia Voices; Britten Sinfonia, Baldur Brönnimann (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 29.5.2014 (CC)


Roderick Williams                               Alan
Omar Ebrahim                                      Caleb Raven
Claire Booth                                            Hannah
Daniel Norman                                       Piper/Bad’un
Ben Knight, Benjamin Clegg              Jack & Dick
Joe Goodling & Duncan Tarboton     Davie & Rob

Director, Design, Lighting                  John Lloyd Davies

I was lucky enough to have attended the premiere of this piece in 1986 (Opera Factory/Elgar Howarth, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall). The strength of the piece struck me then, and it struck me again in this Barbican staging. But Yan Tan Tethera has hardly been performed in between, if at all. That’s an inexplicable state of affairs, and one hopes that the present performance will put the piece back on the radar of concert organisers.

Birtwistle terms Yan Tan Tethera a “mechanical pastoral”, instantly coupling two of his interests. Yet pastoral for Birtwistle is more chthonic than the traditionalist view. He is concerned with ancient issues, of a real connection, yes with Nature, but with the Earth itself also, here manifested as the hills of Wiltshire. The score includes references to magic, too. The Northern Alan counts sheep the ancient way (Yan, Tan, Tethera – One, Two, Three), which is misconstrued by Caleb Raven as some sort of invocation, hence the arrival of the “Bad’un”(Satan/Lucifer) to set things right. Despite the pastoral setting, Birtwistle’s writing here is no easy contrast to the complexities of, say, The Mask of Orpheus. Rather, it is as if the subject matter – impeccably rendered by  librettist Tony Harrison – speaks to Birtwistle’s deepest core – as, indeed, myth does generally.

This was a semi-staging. A variety of images were projected onto screens on either side of the stage, notably perhaps the ancient stones of Wiltshire, a link to an ancient past. The two main protagonists, Alan (Roderick Williams) and Caleb (Omar Ebrahim) were placed on platforms on either side of the stage, one wearing a white jacket, the other black. The chorus of sheep merely wore eye masks to imply their ovine status (I dimly remember singers crawling about the QEH stage on all fours at the premiere …). Lighting was intelligently managed – unsurprisingly, red was the predominant colour for the Bad’un. The conductor Baldur Brönnimann is often superb in the music of our time, and here was no exception. Brönnimann it was that led an excellent account of John Adams’ Death of Klinghofer at ENO in 2012 (review) and of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre there in 2009 (review). His take on Yan Tan Tathera was remarkable in its attunement to the lyrical side of Birtwistle. Melodies were presented as sound representations of a yearning for a primordial past. Textures were lovingly presented, with impressive clarity. The piece was given as an uninterrupted whole (the evening finished at 8:50pm), and Brönnimann presented it as one cogent line.

Roderick Williams is one of our finest singers on the stage today. His talents were largely wasted in Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden last year at the Barbican (review). Here again, he shone, but this time in music of substance, his attractive, focused voice perfect for Birtwistle’s post-Britten lyricism. Omar Ebrahim, who created the role of Caleb, has a darker voice, providing the requisite contrast, while Claire Booth was a crystal clear and yet touching Hannah. Daniel Norman, who took the parts of Piper and Bad’un, projected great stage presence as well as vocal strength. The boys’contributions (from Tiffin School, Kingston) were exemplary.

This was an opportunity not to be missed: when, one wonders, will be the next chance to experience this score, which veers towards masterpiece? Soon, one can only hope. There is something of the very essence of Birtwistle here, and perhaps that is reflected in the economy of scoring and, indeed, expression. This is one of my highlights of the year’s concert-going: it’s difficult to imagine it being bettered.

Colin Clarke

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