Birtwistle Orchestral Works

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Birtwistle Orchestral Works

  • Antiphonies
  • Nomos
  • (An) Imaginary Landscape

Birtwistle's musical landscapes have always had more of the Grand Canyon than of Egdon (or Hampstead) Heath about them. This is music which, if not of warring worlds, enshrines the implacable co-existence of opposites, a music in which reconciliations are tentative, resolutions more ironic than decisive.
Pride of place goes to the recent Antiphonies (1992), a large-scale explosion from the dark side of Earth Dances, haunted by the Green Knight's heavy metal (from Birtwistle's opera Gawain). The drama in Antiphonies is even more intense than in Birtwistle's earlier concerto-type works for clarinet (Melencolia I) and trumpet (Endless Parade), because the piano is less naturally a melody instrument, and its struggle to construct a viable Cantus takes Birtwistle's music back to its origins in volatile, Boulez-like textures of the late 1940s. It is left to orchestral instruments—the tuba, in particular—to establish the kind of line which the piano cannot provide, and to pin-point the music's essential antithesis as it unfolds a mesmerizing polyphony of competing textures and rhetorics.
In reviving two much earlier Birtwistle scores the disc demonstrates how consistent his concerns have been. Nomos (1968) traces a sustained Cantus as it evolves in reaction to changing contexts, a process which is not just an intricate series of mechanisms but a finely heard dialogue between the lyrical and the expressionistic. An Imaginary Landscape (1971) focuses with equal intensity on interacting blocks which occasionally converge—uneasily, of course.
Joanna MacGregor is a paragon of accuracy and alertness in Antiphonies, and the Netherlands Radio orchestra, expertly guided by Michael Gielen, combine with her to re-create a genuine performance of a demanding score. The BBC SO readings of Nomos and An Imaginary Landscape, under Paul Daniel, are no less persuasive. Even the latest recording technology has difficulty in responding to all the finely graded dynamics of a work like Nomos, but the music's spirit emerges with unambiguous clarity.'

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