BIRTWISTLE Settings of Lorine Niedecker. Trio. Bogenstrich
After decades of favouring winds and percussion in his ensemble pieces, Birtwistle turned his attention in the course of the 1990s to string-writing, and to the piano, and to collections of songs. If you enjoy the ‘Fantasias and Friezes’ for string quartet that punctuate his settings of Paul Celan in Pulse Shadows, or the quartet sequence The Tree of Strings, let me recommend an exploration of his Piano Trio of 2011, together with the collection of songs recorded here and especially the cycle Bogenstrich. Whatever the medium and the accretions of tradition you might accept a composer of Birtwistle’s independence of mind to react against – in composing a piano trio, for example – he finds something fresh to say and an accommodation for his intensely personal vision of the world.
I know Brendel père admires him hugely: so who would pass up an invitation to write a piece for cellist Adrian plus the excellent pianist Till Fellner to honour Alfred’s 75th birthday? That was in 2006 and the result was a quite un Mendelssohnian six-minute Lied ohne Worte. The following year Birtwistle composed Variationen, of similar dimensions, again for Brendel and Fellner; later yet another movement appeared (quick – Wie eine Fuge), to make three connected cello and piano pieces which were eventually book-ended by settings of Rilke’s ‘Liebes-Lied’, at the beginning for baritone and piano and at the close for baritone and cello. And everything of the same six-minute duration, give or take a second or two, as if this had been a ‘given’. Bogenstrich is the title of this half-hour of music, borrowed from Rilke’s image of a bow stroke drawing a single voice from two strings. It’s a cycle which continues to draw me back.
The settings of Lorine Niedecker (1903 70), for soprano and cello, began as a bouquet of three for Elliott Carter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Carter who introduced this concise and modernist poet to Birtwistle. Whenever I was in NewYork with a brief to see him about something we ended up talking about poems and poets he admired, I as a willing listener. There are a dozen of hers here to which Birtwistle responds with great refinement of sound and procedure. Amy Freston is good but you need to follow the words with the booklet since she doesn’t articulate much with lips, teeth and tongue. Roderick Williams is very fine in Bogenstrich and the three instrumentalists, quite closely recorded, are in a class any composer would die for.