BIRTWISTLE Songs 1970 - 2006
Harrison Birtwistle uses the term ‘song’ repeatedly in the three-minute extract from an interview included on the disc – but only to emphasise how accompaniments can become independent of vocal lines, realising their own song-like potential in the process. It therefore makes sense that the last work on the disc, Cantus iambeus (2004), is a purely instrumental ‘song’. There are also two string quartet movements from Pulse Shadows between the various vocal items, though none of Pulse Shadows’s own Celan settings; and of the eight movements from 26 Orpheus Elegies included, four are instrumental.
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus, written in 1970 as part of the build-up to The Mask of Orpheus, was recorded by its commissioner, Jane Manning, in 1971 (Lyrita, 1/75, 10/08). This ‘dramatic scene’ is powerfully projected here by Alice Rossi, who is no less characterful in the short set of Songs by Myself (1984), with Birtwistle providing his own texts for the kind of ‘cold thoughts’ that often attract him for musical setting. These sparsely accompanied miniatures anticipate the small-scale collections he has favoured in recent times, including the ongoing Lorine Niedecker sequence, setting an American poet whose tiny verses strain hauntingly against conventional grammar and syntax. The singer here is the excellent Sophia Körber.
The sonnets of Rainer Maria Rilke, while also economical, are much more complex poetically, and Birtwistle’s incomparable settings of all or part of six of them within his Orpheus Elegies can be heard complete in a fine recording by Andrew Watts with Melinda Maxwell and Helen Tunstall (Oboe Classics, 11/09). The booklet with this new CD misses the part-text that is heard in tr 8, but the performance is admirable and all the recordings, taken from an 80th-birthday celebration of Birtwistle’s music in Germany, are satisfyingly polished and atmospheric.