BIRTWISTLE Antiphonies. Slow Frieze
Between 1989 and 1999 Harrison Birtwistle completed three operas whose differences encapsulate the formidable extension of range characteristic of his music at that time. The three works on this disc, written against the background of Gawain, The Second Mrs Kong and The Last Supper, are no less formidable in their technical and expressive assurance. Birtwistle himself linked Panic – that explosive disruption of the cultural complacencies endemic to the last night of the BBC Proms – with the Greek poetic archetype of the dithyramb, and that genre is no less relevant to Antiphonies and Slow Frieze.
Antiphonies – recorded here in the 2003 revision of the 1992 original – projects a large-scale drama which veers between dance and dirge. Slow Frieze (1996), half the length and with the solo piano in contention with a mere 13 players, is a more reflective but no less fractured version of comparable musical events, similarly searching for an elusive lyrical continuity that can only ever be provisional. Even the cavorting, dazzling Panic (1995) has its quieter moments, turning soulful and then unambiguously – ironically? – upbeat towards the end. All three performances are as well characterised in their teeming details as they are assured in overall formal precision.
Crowd (2005) provides a 10-minute epilogue to the three intensely interactive dramas. The title alludes to a Middle English word for the Welsh crwth or lyre, and Birtwistle’s lifelong fascination with the story of Orpheus lies behind the music’s fierce eloquence, perhaps conveying a sense of positive frustration that – on this occasion – no singing is involved. Instead, as the booklet interview suggests, the composer relishes the challenge of teasing continuities out of the harp’s inability to sustain. This recording supplies a notably resonant acoustic, amounting almost to amplification at times, but the music in this spellbinding performance still comes across as a celebratory lament.