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Sir Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Axe Manual (2000) [22:11]; Oockooing Bird (c. 1950) [3:26]; Sad Song (1971) [2:20]; Berceuse de Jeanne (1984) [3:11]; Précis (1960) [3:23]; Hector’s Dawn (1987) [1:27]; Ostinato with Melody (2000)* [5:07]; Betty Freeman: Her Tango (2000)* [2:08]; Saraband: The Kings Farewell (2001)* [2:58]; Harrison’s Clocks (1997-8) [24:45]
Nicolas Hodges (piano), Claire Edwardes (percussion on The Axe Manual),
Recorded 5-9 July 2004 in Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Funkhaus Wallrafplatz Köln DDD
*First recordings.

METRONOME MET CD 1074 [70:58]

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This outstanding release contains the complete piano works to date of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, performed by Nicolas Hodges (no relation to me), an outstanding pianist with a ferocious focus on new music. Coincidentally, just a few weeks ago in New York, I had the good fortune to hear an excellent sampling of Birtwistle’s chamber works with the composer in attendance, and in high comic form, and he continues to surprise with his depth and range.

And the surprises continue here. The title work, The Axe Manual, is "a compendium of rhythmical devices" according to the composer, and is also a joking nod to Emmanuel Ax, who commissioned the work. It opens with a sort of surreal tango, with Hodges and Claire Edwardes in perhaps a semi-lethal embrace, but all highly entertaining. Much of the score contains irresistible drive, its rhythmic patterns alternating between high energy and virtual stasis. Like much of Birtwistle’s work, this one well repays repeated hearings and is, like much of the material here, great fun as well.

Placed immediately following the title track are three short pieces, Oockooing Bird (c. 1950) with its modal melancholy, the pensive Sad Song (1971), and the softly beguiling Berceuse de Jeanne (1984), all just two or three minutes long. These three form a curiously interesting "mini-survey" of the composer’s thoughts separated by decades, and show him writing occasionally in a more simple, pristine way, in marked contrast to some of his more complex statements.

Précis seems like a huge stylistic jump, a small experiment in forceful modernism. It strikes me as unique, at least in this context, a stepping-stone to some of his later works. Hector’s Dawn is short – slightly over a minute – but enters like one of those brief nightmares, when you wake up sweating and fearful, still not quite sure that the terror has passed. The Ostinato with Melody is also from 2000 (apparently a fertile year for Sir Harrison), and tickles with Nancarrow-esque phrasing, like his blues experiments. This is followed immediately with more tango, this one written for Betty Freeman and has a mysteriously off-kilter feeling about it. And the Saraband, which Sir Harrison describes as "a bit jazzy with some pretty sleazy harmonies" indeed uses the traditional saraband as a model, but he subverts the genre by never repeating the initial figure in the same way again.

And then we come to the dazzling Harrison’s Clocks. Each of its five sections begins with the same loud descending rumble, aptly characterized in the notes as a sort of ritornello, or "something like a clock striking." The first section is a fiendishly difficult toccata, like one of Bach’s two-part inventions spiraling helplessly out of control. The second keeps obsessively returning to the same note, gradually slowing down. The third could almost be influenced by Conlon Nancarrow, the fourth has an intriguing "chiming" effect, and the last closes the piece down with yet another toccata with a curious staggered rhythm making the section appear to be chasing itself.

This is all terribly exciting music (not to mention exceedingly taxing to play), performed by Hodges with panache to spare. Some of the more difficult passages – like the first of the three toccatas in Harrison’s Clocks – don’t seem to faze him at all. Hodges also shows a bit of scholarly creativity, with notes in the form of an extended interview that he and Sir Harrison completed with Jonathan Cross in 2004. The thoughtfully produced booklet includes reproductions of manuscript pages that give even further insight into Birtwistle’s thoughts. Including score samples is almost always illuminating, and I wish more recording companies would do this, especially for unfamiliar works.

Metronome’s sound is spacious and detailed, showing Hodges in the best possible light. He is one of the most adventurous young pianists on the scene today, with a great deal of interesting material already under his belt. His recordings of Michael Finnissy’s work are excellent, and I recently acquired his CD of works of Salvatore Sciarrino, unlistened to as yet. And he is a champion of the music of Konrad Boehmer – ever heard of him? Me neither, which is high praise. In short, this is a thematic project that is very well produced, and highly recommended for Birtwistle fans, as well as those tracking trends in 20th-century piano music.

Bruce Hodges

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