BIRTWISTLE Night's Black Bird; (The) Shadow of Night
In Lachrymae and Nocturnal, his two John Dowland-derived works, Britten explored common ground between the melancholic intimacy of the late-16th/early-17th-century originals and his own genius for understated lamentation. By contrast, in the pair of orchestral works from 2004‑05 recorded here, Sir Harrison Birtwistle has used a melodic fragment from Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell” as the pretext for very un-Britten-like explorations of the darker side of human experience. If The Shadow of Night had been called “Funeral Music for a Hero”, its stark anti-triumphalist spirit would not seem at all incongruous. In Night’s Black Bird the lament is less expansively elaborate but still intense to a degree Britten might have found distasteful. Yet Birtwistle’s expressionistic grandeur is the perfect complement to Britten’s conflicted restraint, and no less persuasive as an act of homage to a revered precursor.
The earliest composition on the disc offers a characteristic take on the theme of painful alienation that has reached its fullest expression to date in Birtwistle’s 2008 opera The Minotaur. Anubis – a god with a jackal’s head – is, like the Minotaur, a mythic hybrid, and in The Cry of Anubis the solo tuba – the excellent Owen Slade – contrasts bleating torment with elements of a richly refined elegy. In a welcome if rare excursion into contemporary music, and recorded with tinglingly immediate atmosphere, the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth sound on top form throughout.