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Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934)
Songs: 1970–2006
Nenia: The Death Of Orpheus (1970)
Orpheus Elegies
Fantasia III
Nine Settings for Lorine Niedecker
for Soprano and cello
Frieze I
Songs by Myself
Cantus Iambeus

Interview with Birtwistle
Alice Rossi (soprano)
Das Neue Ensemble, Kuss Quartet, Soloists of the Hochschule für Musik,Theater und Medien, Hannover/Stefan Asbury
rec. 2014, NDR Landesfunkhaus Niedersachsen, Hannover; Orangerie, Herrenhausen

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday in 2014 saw a number of celebratory events including two concerts in Hannover which were attended by the composer. These focused on several of his song collections and recordings from these events form the basis of this issue. The CD contains the first recordings of Canteus Iambeus and of Lullaby for Solo Voices and the only recording currently available of the Songs by Myself.

Birtwistle has long been a major composer for the voice, whether solo, choral or operatic. So it was a bit alarming to hear critics on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review preface a recent discussion of this CD by announcing that they didn’t usually think of Birtwistle as a song composer. He says in the interview on this CD — and printed in the booklet — “Before music I was very interested in verse … and now today I do read verse a lot … with an eye to what is possible to set.” The eclectic group of poets set here includes the composer, in the Songs by Myself.

It opens with the earliest composition on the disc, and the first of his several works concerned with the Orpheus myth, Nenia: The Death of Orpheus, a dramatic scena from 1970. Here the soprano carries the work, being at various times narrator, Orpheus and Euridice and using speech, speech-song, humming and full song often in rapid alternation. The range of vocal techniques is a tribute to the virtuosity of Jane Manning, the soprano who commissioned the work. This recording features the young Italian soprano Alice Rossi, who has a fine voice and rises to the challenge impressively. That said, it is difficult for anyone, certainly a non-native speaker of English to match Manning’s recording (Lyrita) in this score. It is not so much issues of pronunciation – these are not very troubling here and anyway no-one wants to confine performance to English-speaking sopranos. It is rather that Manning is able to relish the nuances of the English text and her demanding role, and take her time in evoking the drama, Her performance — made with the composer present — runs to 17:45, whereas Rossi rather dashes through in 12:45. This is a big difference in a short work. The instrumental contribution is splendid, the three bass clarinets wonderfully caught by the recording, warm, close and woody, almost tactile in the eloquent coda.

The next item stays with Orpheus, and the 26 Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and counter-tenor. They relate to the Sonnets to Orpheus of Rainer Maria Rilke, if only obliquely, in that they are mostly purely instrumental miniatures. Three have a portion of a Rilke text that is sung, and three are a full text settings. The remaining twenty each has a phrase from a sonnet written at the end of the score — as with Debussy’s Preludes, where the piece’s ‘title’ comes after the score. The composer leaves it to the players to decide which ones to perform and in what sequence apart from the first and last. Here we have the three with counter-tenor and five with instruments only. Two of the latter also have a metronome ticking along, set in motion by the singer. The counter-tenor here is an excellent singer, nicely delineating these elusive German texts, but it is the eloquent oboist who is the key. Birtwistle explains that he thought of that instrument as Orpheus rather than the singer. Once you have heard this taster of the fragile sound of oboe and harp, you might well want to hear them all, which you can do on the Oboe Classics disc with Melinda Maxwell, the oboist for whom they were written.

The Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker for soprano and cello are highly aphoristic, all nine taking less than eleven minutes to perform here. There are very few notes here for either performer, yet there is nothing diminutive in the feeling, the music evoking Blake’s ‘world in a grain of sand’. The rival version on ECM, with Amy Freston and Adrian Brendel, contains three further recent settings of Niedecker for soprano and cello in addition to the nine here. It is more engaging than this Toccata issue as the text is more clearly projected by Freston than it is here by Sophia Körber. Körber sings rather beautifully, but mostly without consonants. In a world of such Webernian sparseness every element, even the diction, needs to make its contribution.

The Songs by Myself consists of five songs with instrumental ensemble, also all very brief. The composer’s own texts are just as elusive as Rilke or Niedecker – but then no-one would expect Birtwistle to write verse like Betjeman’s, and he describes these verses as being “dredged from the silt of my subconscious”. What matters is that the music here is as satisfying as any on the disc, the contributions of the seven instruments perhaps even more evocative than the supple vocal line. Birtwistle apologises quite explicitly in the interview on the disc; “I don’t write fun songs” he explains, “they are an aspect of my personality that is to do with my melancholia”. He goes on to refer to Dowland, and in some ways he sounds in several pieces like a modernist heir to the great Elizabethan.

The disc also contains the brief Lullaby from 2006, in a version for two sopranos. The choral version was included on the recent very successful ‘Moth Requiem” disc from Signum, but this duet version is a very viable and touching alternative. The other three pieces on the disc are all instrumental, two of the Nine Movements for String Quartet (Fantasia III and Frieze I), and the first recording of Cantus Iambeus. This is the last work on the disc, and in terms of recorded repertoire probably the most important. Certainly it is a highly characteristic piece, using much the same ensemble as one of Birtwistle’s own favourites among his many works, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. The iambic rhythm of the title is much in evidence, if often in multiple offset parts or punctuated by offbeat Stravinskian accents. Das Neue Ensemble under Stefan Astbury is as successful here as when deployed elsewhere on the CD. It’s a compelling work and perhaps the most compelling reason to get this disc.

Overall this is a valuable addition to the Birtwistle discography. If the vocal numbers must usually yield to the existing competition, each of them still serves the music well. The sound is very good, and the notes are helpful and comprehensive, with a fuller version of the interview with Birtwistle. The programme overall is appealing and, apart from the curious positioning of the recorded interview extract as the penultimate track, the sequence of vocal and instrumental pieces is very satisfying. It begins and ends with the most substantial works and there's much fascinating variety in between. It is a disc replete with that “ancient and modern” feeling we so often get with this great composer, each fiercely concentrated offering a missive from that prelapsarian world to which he alone now holds the key.

Roy Westbrook



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