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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
The Fields of Sorrow for 2 sopranos, chorus and 16 players (1972) [9.58] * ***
Verses for Ensembles for 5 woodwind, 5 brass and 3 percussion (1969) [28.13] **
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus A dramatic scena for soprano, 3 bass clarinets, clarinet, piano, prepared piano and crotales (1970) [17.45] ***
Jane Manning (soprano) ****
London Sinfonietta/David Atherton ***
The Matrix/Alan Hacker **
rec. under British Council auspices, Kingsway Hall, January, May 1974. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.306 [56.06]

Experience Classicsonline

These are iconic recordings from the early 1970s originally issued on that wonderful Argo label and since snapped up by Lyrita. These represent the early Birtwistle: an especially radical figure it seems now, but that may be because everything was so new and unexpected at the time.

When listening to Birtwistle one must remember two things. The first is that his inspiration comes from a sense of ancient ritual and procession. The second is his obsession with the Orpheus legend illustrated here in works composed when he was in his late thirties and beginning to make a reputation. These pieces were at the cutting edge of contemporary music at the time. Here they are in extraordinarily convincing and momentous performances by one of the greatest of all singers, Jane Manning. She is joined by the amazing London Sinfonietta and Matrix under Alan Hacker. Hacker, it will be remembered, was a contemporary of Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies in Manchester. This music still has the power to create an impact.

The first work on the disc is the shortest. It is a good example of Birtwistle’s pagan processional mood. It is all based on one idea, one sound-world, at which he beavers away for over nine minutes. As if to back up my statement I will mention that in his book ‘British Composers of the 1980s’ (Faber, London, 1985) Paul Griffiths was told by Birtwistle "I’ve always thought of my pieces as starting from germs". Paul Conway in his exemplary booklet notes writes that ‘The Fields of Sorrow’ "unfolds in one broad progressive span sharing with ‘The Triumph of Time’ a strong processional element". The text which is in Latin and is translated in the booklet is by Decimus Ausonius (c.310-395). It comes from Virgil describing the souls of two lovers drifting through the forest of Avernus. The otherworldly quality of the text is evident in music which itself reflects the mood "among slender reed and heavy poppies" (translated by Helen Waddell).

The instruments are set out in the stage in an especially ‘dramatic’ manner. For example at the front of the stage are four separate three-part choirs of various woodwinds with pianos left and right. Setting up the stage before the music begins is also a feature of the acerbic and tight-lipped masterwork ‘Verses for Ensemble’. Paul Griffiths’ says in his now sadly out of print book "If you take ‘Verses for Ensembles’… there are some brass ritornellos in four parts which can be played in many, many different ways". So there is a chance element to the music. The version you hear on this recording is only one possible way of "viewing the object from every possible angle" - like looking at a sculpture from every aspect. The work which falls into twenty-six obviously short sections is remarkable in the variety of ways that Birtwistle uses his material and keeps thinking of new sonorities. One can equate the piece to an Elizabethan ‘Fantasia’ in form and in fecundity of ideas. Paul Conway goes through the piece as you listen in a very helpful way from its "arresting opening" to its "final vehement chord".

‘Nenia’ is an Orpheus legend-inspired piece with an especially written text by Peter Zinovieff. He wrote the text for Birtwistle’s Orpheus opera and also founded the EMS Company which invented the VCS 3 Synthesizer in 1968. His text is perfect, succinct, full of images. Representing a conversation between Orpheus and Eurydice, it carries just the right sense of drama without falling into theatricality. It however carries the subtitle: a ‘dramatic scena’. Only a singer of virtuosity, élan and versatility could tackle a piece such as this. Many vocal techniques are employed: ‘Sprechstimme’, screaming, speech, use of very low register, and differing voices for the two characters as well as the narrator. The instrumentation, including a prepared piano and three bass clarinets creates and accentuates a sense of dark hysteria.

Of the three pieces offered here, the first ‘The Fields of Sorrow’, is a distinct and moving masterpiece. The second, ‘Verses for Ensembles’ is fascinating and brilliant but the third ‘Nenia’ now sounds mannered and dated. That has become my view on re-acquaintance with these early pieces. However you are unlikely ever to hear these works live so if you want to get to know what made Birtwistle tick in the 1960s then snap up this CD. The performances, as I have indicated, are miraculous, and the analogue recordings show little sign of age, although they do not have the kind of stereophonic spacing one expects nowadays - something which would have been especially helpful in ‘Fields of Sorrow’. You catch these musicians at the time of their very best work when this was avant-grade music, dangerous and exciting, new and provocative. The mood of the time is superbly captured when audiences and record buyers were prepared to be shocked and be taken on a unique musical journey. There was a great sense of adventure and daring. It has all comes back to me and it probably will to you when you hear these recordings.

Gary Higginson

See also review by Rob Barnett and Ewan McCormick





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