BIRTWISTLE Pulse Shadows
From Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire to Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Kurtág’s Messages of the late RV Troussova‚ modernist composers have used the medium of voice with mixed instrumental ensemble for their most allusive and personal utterances. Harrison Birtwistle’s Pulse Shadows (199196) belongs in this exalted company. While emphatically not easy listening‚ it deals with some of the most elemental and profound topics in contemporary culture‚ and this longawaited recording rises to the score’s many challenges‚ both technically and interpretatively.
Pulse Shadows is subtitled ‘Meditations on Paul Celan’‚ acknowledging the poetauthor of the texts for the nine vocal movements‚ and also indicating that the nine movements for string quartet with which the vocal movements are interleaved reflect on – shadow – the emotions that setting Celan (mainly in Michael Hamburger’s English translations) created in the composer. Although the final form of the work was not envisaged when the first few movements were written‚ Birtwistle took great care to integrate and interrelate the movements in ways which enhance the cumulative impact of the whole. Celan’s poems are oblique rituals‚ meditations on the state of human consciousness after the Holocaust‚ and Birtwistle’s music links that quality with the kind of innately melancholic‚ stoical‚ intensely humane spirit that informs most of his finest works‚ from Tragoedia and The Mask of Orpheus to The Last Supper‚ and beyond.
As a sequence of laments‚ Pulse Shadows has something in common with Stravinsky’s Threni. But whereas that profoundly religious work uses the Lamentations of Jeremiah to answer humanity’s questions about suffering and sorrow‚ Pulse Shadows asks deeply sceptical questions and leaves answers open. Unobtrusive confidence and commitment are vital for a performance of it to work‚ and Claron McFadden is by far the most assured and mellifluous singer I have heard in this music. I would like to hear a performance of the final movement in which the ‘speechsong’ was pitched closer to the notes found in the score‚ but the way it is done here has the composer’s sanction‚ and strongly enhances the unresolved tension between quasispeech and the contrasting sung element. With the kind of precision and empathy you expect from the Arditti Quartet‚ five members of the Nash Ensemble – who should have been named in the booklet – and the conductor Reinbert de Leeuw‚ not to mention the admirable recorded sound‚ this is a disc to live with‚ and be haunted by‚ for years to come.