Birtwistle: Orchestral Works

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

BIRTWISTLE Orchestral Works

  • Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
  • Silbury Air
  • Secret Theatre

No more exciting recording of contemporary music than this has appeared for many a day. It celebrates the virtues, and the virtuosity, of the London Sinfonietta, now 20 years old and still well ahead of the field, at least in England, when it comes to performing modern music. The disc also celebrates the Sinfonietta's long association with Harrison Birtwistle, including three of the four most substantial works he has written for them. The Sinfonietta's Birtwistle disc that includes the fourth Verse for Ensembles (Decca HEAD7, 1/75—nla) deserves early reissue.
It is Secret Theatre (1984) that makes this new recording special. Playing for more than half an hour (the timing given on the CD is wrong) it is an enthralling exploration of the interaction between what Birtwistle terms 'cantus' and 'continuum'—chant-like melody and block-like, chordally-constructed harmony. These two elements are of equal importance, and serve to promote the real drama of the music: the confrontation, and achievement of equilibrium, between individual and collective. They do this so powerfully as to suggest that the spirit and structure of Secret Theatre might owe a good deal to Birtwistle's experience in providing music for Sir Peter Hall's magnificent National Theatre production of The Oresteia, a few years earlier. The music also expresses a confrontation between pulse (that inevitable passing of time against which humans rage in vain) and pitch, celebrated through the interactions of melody and harmony that turn pure rhythm into music. There is a visual aspect to Secret Theatre—the movement of featured players to and from the front of the platform—but the music itself is so absorbing that its absence is no serious loss.
I have little space left in which to comment on the two earlier, shorter works, both characteristic, fascinating, though less wide-ranging and richly-varied than Secret Theatre. Taken together, however, these compositions leave no doubts as to why Birtwistle is such a formidable, acclaimed presence on the contemporary scene. All that needs to be said about the performances, and the recording, is that they do the music justice.'

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