As can be seen from the above dates this is a CD which scans Birtwistle's
creative life from his earliest composition of c.1950 when he was about
sixteen, over a period of forty-five years. As such it is the more valuable
for demonstrating a line of development in the composer which no other
available CD reaches. Also his piano music is so little known that it
gives us a view of his music away from the massive orchestral works
and operas to the intimacy of chippings from the composer's workshop,
not implying that these are low quality Birtwistle, just short and succinct.
The notes for the CD booklet which are also in French
and German are supplemented by an (untranslated) interview by Colin
Anderson entitled "I speak directly to myself". This makes the point
again that Birtwistle, when composing, does not know how to address
himself to the audience because he says, "I don't know who it is". This
interview gives considerable background on most of the pieces and on
Birtwistle's background. Indeed he reminds us that the formidable 'Refrains
and Choruses' which gives the disc a name was written as long ago as
1956 when he was fulfilling National Service as a bandsman. He also
goes on to remind us that the music of Boulez and Nono "appealed to
the radical in me". He admits that the outcome of a composition can
be that it "ends up as Ritual", a comment often made, especially when
one hears the powerful and inexorable progress of a work like "The Triumph
I can never be sure if it was Elizabeth Lutyens or
Constant Lambert who first used the term 'the English cow-pat school',
inspired I believe by the image of Vaughan Williams and his fellow composers
musing whilst leaning over a farmyard gate. Really what was meant by
this clever but unhelpful remark was that these composers were of one
accord with an English sense of pastoralism. This manifested itself
in the early 20th Century in music using modality and melody. They were
inspired directly and mainly by the land, and the earth, and the seasons.
So, it follows, in my view, that Birtwistle is an English pastoral composer,
the music arising from a sense of the basic emotional unity between
man and the moods and forms of nature and of sounds inspired by the
power of earth its roughness and its smell, as in the beginning of 'Linoi'.
When seen in this light, Birtwistle is no longer difficult and ugly,
but a true painter of what he sees around him, now from his Wiltshire
home; Wiltshire, perhaps the most ancient county in England, where Michael
Tippett also lived, another composer so in tune with the natural world.
To me it's all there, as it is in Varèse whose
primitive sound-world seems so close to that of Birtwistle. I also hear
a touch of pointillistic Webern - for instance the opening of 'Verses'.
There is also inspiration form Stravinsky who loved to use wind instruments
in preference to strings. Again Birtwistle seems very much at home with
the wind and air available from such a combination.
Let us briefly go through each item on this CD.
'Hoquetus Petrus' for the astringent combination of
two flutes and piccolo, is one of several of his works using the mediaeval
technique of hocketing or voice exchange. This work acts as a brief
prelude to 'Refrains and Choruses' effectively his Opus 1, for Wind
Quintet. 'Hector's Dream' is a brief first birthday present for piano
solo for the composer's godson. It is a rather desolate piece of only
just over one minute's duration. Next comes 'Duets for Storab' which,
in the interview, the composer tells us were written for his publisher
as educational pieces but which were subsequently proved to be well
above that standard. 'Linoi' is for clarinet and piano. Birtwistle began
life, as it were, as a clarinettist. He obviously knows its complete
possibilities. The opening is like mist rising from a stone-age dawn,
leading to a nervous climax five minutes in and then fading out again.
It is mostly quiet with some magical effects made by playing the inside
of the piano. 'Berceuse de Jeanne' is a gently rocking piano solo mostly
in 6/8 time which "lasts as long as it takes to rock a baby to sleep".
'Verses' is a tough five-minute work for clarinet and piano. 'Chorale
in a Toy Shop' which is less than three minutes long is for Wind Quintet
and was written as an 85th birthday tribute to Stravinsky.
'Sad Song' is a modal and wistful piano solo written for Birtwistle's
eldest son, Adam. It is Adam's searching portrait of his father which
adorns the CD booklet. 'An interrupted endless melody' - a brief three-movement
work for oboe and piano - is a continuous song-like oboe melody with
differing types of accompaniment. 'Ookooing Bird' is a schoolboy piano
piece, the earliest on the disc, which is quite fascinating in its originality.
The disc ends with the fine and powerful 'Five Distances' for Wind Quintet,
the longest work on the recording.
Performances are quite superb, being totally committed
and utterly convincing. There is a wonderful sense of true ensemble
and a feeling that the performers know the music very well before the
act of putting on tape. I cannot fault any of them. The recording is
excellent. The piano sound is just possibly a little recessed when in
ensemble. The CD booklet is very unhelpful in identifying the performers
for each work, in fact it is only on the back of the CD that one can
find the names of the individual players of the ensemble. The instrumentation
for each work is never given. The performers are; Kathryn Thomas, flute;
Owen Dennis, oboe; Richard Baylis, horn; Katherine Spenser, clarinet
and Helen Simons, bassoon. In addition there is Robert Manasse in 'Storab'
and Mark Law on Piccolo trumpet in the 'Hoquetus Petrus'
A well planned disc with a wide variety of music demonstrating
Birtwistle's ability to write in different styles, some of which would
not be readily associated with him.
See also review by Peter