United Kingdom Birtwistle: A Celebration London Sinfonietta, RAM Manson Ensemble, David Atherton, Geoffrey Paterson (conductors). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5.12.2014 (CC)
Duet 1: The Message
Duet 4: Violute (World Première)
Duet 5: Echo (World Première)
In Broken Images
This was one of the most stimulating concerts of the year. Having a whole concert of Birtwistle is like Christmas coming early, a throwback to the good old days where every Birtwistle performance was a major event and there was a feeling of infinite possibility in the air (I refer back to my student days in the 1980s and early 1990s, in fact). Even the world premières we were so used to in those days were there – two out of three of the Duets.
A brief and characteristic chat between the composer and Tom Service was a throwback, too. Birtwistle’s characteristic Northern directness is surely designed not to give anything away, to make us, the listeners, work. Blow-by-blow listening plans really are not Birtwistle’s style. There is no message except for the music itself; he writes functionally, for particular players. Et cetera.
But that music is shot through with greatness. The first Duet, “The Message” is for trumpet and E flat clarinet and has a third party at the end, a single gesture on snare drum. There was a real sense of dialogue between the two players (special mention for the purity of attack and accuracy of Alistair Mackie, better known perhaps for his work with the Philharmonia). Birtwistle’s preoccupation with theatre and, more relevantly, the theatrical aspects of instrumental pieces, was highly evident in the sense of give and take here. Duet 4, “Violute” for flute and violin found Birtwistle unashamedly calling on gestures (tremolandi on the violin) to create tension, but importantly its close brought in a side of Birtwistle that is frequently overlooked: his wit. Finally, Duet No. 5, “Echo”, for horn and trombone, was much more explicitly pointillist. Both players’ techniques were tested to the utmost, and both came out victorious.
The two other pieces of the first half addressed Birtwistle’s fondness for early music. In the 2008 Virelai for an ensemble of twelve players, Birtwistle realises to great effect a piece by Johannes Ciconia, a composer who flourished in the second half of the fourteenth century. He maintains the spirit of the original, yet the filter through which it passes is beyond a shadow of a doubt Birtwistle. The performance was bouncy and, in truth, fun. The final piece in the first half was In Broken Images (after the antiphonal music of Gabrieli, for ensemble, also from 2008). The title comes from a Robert Graves poem which raises the idea of “thinking in broken images” and indeed the non-synchronous nature of the writing, with the exception of one moment when it all fleetingly comes together, is tremendously exciting. The expertise of the Sinfonietta players (and that of the RAM’s Manson Ensemble) brought another throwback to those memories of the days of yore, and the privilege that it is to hear contemporary music performed at this level.
Finally, the post-interval Theseus Games of 2002/3. I was lucky enough to attend an early performance of this piece in London, presumably just after the world première in Germany, now over a decade ago. So it was good to revisit it especially as, given the theatrical nature of the work, it does not really suit sound-only broadcast or recording. A melody – one of Birtwistle’s endless melodies – runs through the piece, like Theseus’ thread, and soloists move to the front of the stage to deliver their portion of this ‘thread’. Birtwistle divides his players into two groups, inviting in multiple time-streams. The use of controlled improvisation right next to juxtapositions that seem to have been arrived at after some hard-core maths results in a piece of virtuoso composition that requires similarly virtuoso players. It seems tailored for the London Sinfonietta and, indeed, it must have a very limited player-ship. The piece also utilises the characteristic Birtwistle tactic of layering, and I am sure that aspect was more obvious in the early performance – perhaps this performance was simply too loud in places to let the textural manipulations through. Yet the special nature of the piece was intact. This is surely one of Birtwistle’s finest scores, and it made a fitting, and stimulating, close to the concert.