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Harrison Birtwistle
Refrains and Choruses
1. Hoquetus Petrus (1995)
2. Refrains and Choruses (1957)
3. Hector's Dawn (1987)
Duets for Storab (1983)
10. Linoi (1968)
11. Berceuse de Jeanne (1984)
12. Verses (1965)
13. Chorale from a Toy-Shop (1967)
14. Sad Song (1971)
15-17. An interrupted Endless Melody (1991)
18. Oockooing Bird (c.1950)
19. Five Distances (1992)

Richard Shaw (piano)
The Galliard Ensemble;
Recorded December 2000 at Leighton Park School, Reading.
DEUX-ELLES DXL1019 [73 mins]

Here is a real winner, and particularly welcome coming on the heels of the splendid compilation in The British Music Collection (Decca 468 804-2), which also includes Five Distances (played by Ensemble InterContemporain) together with works for larger chamber ensembles and orchestras. The Galliards need fear no comparison, and theirs is a cunningly organised programme of smaller scale pieces by Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934), a few of which might otherwise never have been recorded. Their generous selection covers a broad range of instrumentation, influences and structure.

The backbone is two substantial wind quintets, his early Refrains & Choruses (1957) and the Five Distances (1992). Birtwistle stresses the differences between the wind quintet instruments as contrasted with the family of strings. Both are strong, quirky pieces, the first establishing his individuality in a total serialist context (no mean feat that) and the other much more recent. Perhaps all six of the difficult and austere Duets for Storab (two flutes) should not be played straight through? Try the experiment of interspersing some of them with the three versions of An Interrupted Endless Melody, which can be given singly or as a set of three pieces.

Some of this programme was given at a 1999 Prom reviewed in Seen & Heard, where you will find some exchanges from a characteristically frosty radio interview with the composer. The Serpentine Gallery, with an eye catching exhibition of Brigid Reilly to counterpoint the music, proved then to be an unsuitable venue for this often strident music, and the difference tones were really painful!

All is quite different in this CD production, recorded at a school in Reading where everything is perfect. And Colin Anderson did far better in encouraging Sir Harrison to expand by visiting his home in Wiltshire. His interview, and editing of the booklet, are exemplary, and for those who can cope with the technicalities, there are pertinent and lucid notes by the musicologist Richard Whitehouse, a founder member of the Seen & Heard launch team.

Richard Shaw (piano) makes an important contribution to the success of the programme as a whole. He gives some quieter solos at just the right moments (one of them composed for Birtwistle's son Adam, who contributes the very striking cover portrait of his father) and in Linoi with Katherine Spencer (clarinet), who is pictured on the back cover in a pose which reminds us how we all used to sit on the floor at school! All the playing is immaculate.

It has been a pleasure to follow the progress of the Galliard Ensemble and its members live (e.g. ) and on CD & since their PLG days, and this release should really put them on the contemporary music international map.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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