Birtwistle Orchestral Works

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Birtwistle Orchestral Works

  • (The) Triumph of Time
  • Gawain's Journey

When Sir Harrison Birtwistle's opera Gawain was first performed at Covent Garden in 1991 there was some critical talk to the effect that the broad brush-strokes necessary for such a big house had meant the loss of that incisiveness and open-textured concision so highly valued in his earlier works.
This splendidly played and well-recorded disc can be used to put this judgement to the test. Gawain's Journey offers a substantial set of extracts from the opera (vocal lines allotted to instruments) which forms a convincing whole and reinforces the impression that this is one of the weightiest dramatic scores of this or any other age. It has the immediate, unmediated forcefulness so typical of Birtwistle, and while alongside The Triumph of Time (1971-2) it seems expansive, even sprawling, it must be remembered that the opera is an epic as well as a mythic work: music that pulled too many punches would run the risk of trivializing the drama. Gawain, and Gawain's Journey, may verge on the unremitting, but there's no mistaking their visceral theatrical power.
In no sense is The Triumph of Time operatic, but its structure and material (which Birtwistle linked to the Bruegel engraving) is vividly dramatic, the sure-footed skill and economy of its gradual accumulation of tension and density still unsurpassed in Birtwistle's output. Since Boulez's BBC SO recording (Argo, 7/75) has been unavailable for so long, this triumphant return to the catalogue of a 1970s masterwork is cause for jubilation. Collins Classics should book Elgar Howarth and the Philharmonia to record Birtwistle's other, earlier orchestral compositions—Chorales, Nomos, An Imaginary Landscape—without delay.'

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