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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]

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 of Time".

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.

Gary Higginson

See also review by Peter Grahame Woolf



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