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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Fields of Sorrow for two sopranos, chorus and sixteen players (1972) [9:58]
Verses for Ensembles for five woodwind, five brass and three percussion (1969) [28:13]
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus - a 'dramatic scene' for soprano, three bass clarinets, clarinet, piano, prepared piano and crotales (1970) [17:45]
Jane Manning (soprano); London Sinfonietta/David Atherton; The Matrix/Alan Hacker (Nenia).
rec. January, May 1973, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
first released in 1974 on Decca LP HEAD 7
recording made in association with British Council and in presence of the composer
LYRITA SRCD.306 [56:08]

Close of The Fields of Sorrow

Experience Classicsonline


Now that Lyrita appear to have reissued the majority of their own archive, it’s gratifying to see that they are turning their attention to some old Decca/British Council releases from the 1960s and 1970s that would otherwise be languishing in the vaults. The Decca Headline series contained some classic performances of then avant-garde works by contemporary composers; it featured works by international figures such as Messiaen, Lutoslawski and Henze in addition to home-grown talent such as Birtwistle, Bedford and Musgrave. The present CD is a straight reissue of HEAD 7 and contains three key works by Birtwistle from the late 1960s/early 1970s. It offers a useful snapshot of the composer’s style as he moved from the harsh expressionism of his early works (typified by the opera Punch and Judy) to his increasing fascination with the Orpheus legend, itself reflected in a softer-grained, relatively lyrical approach. On this CD The Fields of Sorrow and Nenia represent, broadly speaking, the latter approach; Verses for Ensembles contains elements of the more angular, rigorous Birtwistle.

Jane Manning joins the London Sinfonietta and Chorus for The Fields of Sorrow; word setting is unconventional, being divided across the forces, often syllabically. The performers are also distributed across the sound-stage, creating together with the bell-like sonorities a ghostly, disembodied effect. This effectively reflects the mediaeval poem which Birtwistle sets, depicting the journey of two souls through a gloomy forest in Hades.

By contrast with Verses for Ensembles we have what marks perhaps a culmination of his early, expressionist years. Hieratic brass and woodwind writing, contrasted with ebullient percussion, throw us immediately into a very different sound-world. The work encapsulates many characteristics of Birtwistle’s "early" period; his use of verse and refrain forms as a structural device, his fascination with procession or ritual, and a deployment of contrasting instrumental resources as a way of articulating the structure for the listener. The instrumentation is set into sharp relief by the composer’s spatial distribution of his forces on stage. Thus two woodwind groups sit to the left and right of the stage, with brass and percussion towards the rear. Birtwistle also requires players to move physically to key positions on stage at significant moments in the piece. The sounds themselves contrast harsh, aggressive brass and woodwind writing with softer passages. Verses for Ensembles is by no means an easy work to assimilate, but as ever with Birtwistle the music repays repeated study. The performance, by the forces for which it was written, is everything we could wish for. Perhaps one or two extra tracking points on the CD might have helped those unfamiliar with the music to find their bearings more clearly.

The final work on the CD, Nenia – The Death of Orpheus, was composed the year after Verses. The title refers to a Roman funeral dirge and the goddess invoked; Orpheus and Euridice are the subjects of the ritual. Birtwistle now groups his instrumental forces according to timbres, rather than the contrasting sounds he created in Verses. The instrumental music is dominated by the sound of bass clarinets. The structure of the piece, the instrumental forces, and the vocal style Birtwistle requires of his soloist - Jane Manning again - are immensely fluid, and immensely challenging, but at all times dictated by the text. Once again the performances are astonishing in their virtuosity.

As the composer in his early years moved from one set of preoccupations to another, reflected by a development in his actual compositional style, it’s misleading to suppose that each compositional phase is entirely self-contained, without reference to what came before or after. Birtwistle himself felt that each of his pieces consisted of "layers" reflecting both previous interests and pointing the way forward to future developments. On first hearing the extreme dissonance of Verses for Ensembles may appear to contrast sharply with the softer-grained approach of The Fields of Sorrow; but the composer’s spatial distribution of his forces in both works provides a stylistic link. Nenia, as we have seen, contains the preoccupations with ritual that characterised many of his earlier works. What comes across very clearly - and here I echo a word Paul Conway uses in his excellent booklet notes - is the composer’s stylistic integrity right across his output.

Ewan McCormick

see also review by Rob Barnett






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