BIRTWISTLE Complete Piano Works
Though most of the items in this indispensable collection of Birtwistle’s keyboard music last five minutes or less, two are on a scale commensurate with the orchestral Triumph of Time or Secret Theatre. In Harrison’s Clocks (1997-98) simultaneously unfolding strata demonstrate that ‘interdependent independ- ence’ of which Birtwistle often speaks. On one level, the music is potently mechanical, welded together from clearly defined rhythmic patterns which recur and collide like meshing cogs. Yet lying behind these mechanics is that back- ground of complex associations with myth and ritual which is never far away in any Birtwistle composition, even the shortest and simplest.
Nicolas Hodges is an accomplished guide to these varied perspectives, never over-nuancing the understated poetry of the miniatures, but meeting all the technical and interpretative challenges of the larger works with total authority. What’s more, this collection has obvious advantages over Joanna McGregor’s short-play disc of Harrison’s Clocks (2/00), and the miscellanies from Clarinet Classics and Deux Elles (11/01) which include some of the shorter pieces: not only is it dedicated to a single, significant area of Birtwistle’s output, but it also includes the first recording of his latest large-scale piano work, The Axe Manual (2000).
Written for Emanuel Ax (will he record it one day?) this is an exuberant, and, in its central stages, delicate essay in ‘extending’ piano sound by means of metal and wood percussion. It’s a tribute to the quality of the WDR Cologne recording, excellent throughout, that the balance between the two performers seems so effortlessly right.
In style, The Axe Manual belongs between Exody and Theseus Game (the latter already issued by DG, A/04). Like those powerfully conceived compositions, it turns the fascination with tone-colour and texture into an absorbing musical drama, a battle with and against time that has an intensely human urgency and passion.