Turnage – Returning, for string sextet (London première)
Birtwistle – Pieces from Orpheus Elegies, for countertenor, oboe, and harp
MacMillan – Horn Quintet (London première)
Goehr – Clarinet Quintet (world première)
Colin Matthews – The Island, for soprano, alto flute, horn, piano, harp, viola, and cello (world première)
Claire Booth (soprano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Paul Watkins (conductor)
This concert proved a marvellous way to highlight the Nash Ensemble’s continuing commitment to new music. Five works by British composers were performed, four of which were receiving some sort of première, two of them of the world variety. Indeed, the ‘early music’ was Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Orpheus Elegies, which dates back all the way to 2003-4. All five composers were present, along with a number of other significant figures from the ‘new music world’.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Returning (2007), for string sextet, provided a relatively easy ‘way in’ to the music, although I doubt that many in the audience would have been unaware of what was on offer. It was evidently a genuinely felt offering for the composer’s parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, which, although it could hardly have been said to have strained at the bounds of compositional technique, utilised the sextet forces admirably and worked to a clear narrative plan. The marking ‘Almost as if frozen’ described the opening perfectly. Thereafter, the music appeared to thaw, with proliferating instrumental underneath the predominating high melodic line. Gathering in intensity – in both work and performance – the somewhat frenetic climax subsided again, although, as Anthony Burton pointed out in his programme note, less to freeze than to thaw. Much of the music sounded, in harmony and in texture, recognisably in a tradition of English string music.
There did, however, appear to be a world of difference between this sextet and the masterwork Orpheus Elegies, from which Birtwistle selected eleven of its twenty-six movements, each based upon one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Birtwistle’s original intention had been not to set the texts, but ‘simply to let them influence the instrumental music,’ with a quotation at the end of each movement, rather like the ‘titles’ to Debussy’s piano Préludes. But the texts would not leave the composer in peace, so he decided to include some of the sonnets, or at least lines from them, and to introduce a countertenor. This performance will have provided many in the audience with a curtain raiser for London’s forthcoming operatic Birtwistle events: two (!) productions of Punch and Judy and the world premiere of The Minatour. Indeed, Andrew Watts will be singing in the latter. Here one was in the presence of an utterly personal voice, with never a note wasted. The composer spoke of ‘the problem of the combination of oboe and harp: how do you avoid making that combination sound like occasional music?’ I hardly need add that there was no chance of that happening here; Birtwistle may write incidental music, such as that to the National Theatre’s Oresteia, but there is nothing remotely occasional about his compositions.
The combination of oboe and harp, with countertenor for four of the elegies, proves every bit as vigorously haunting as one would expect from this composer’s pen. The oboe, Birtwistle explained, is ‘the voice of Orpheus,’ the countertenor the narrator, and the harp represents Orpheus’s lyre, although he added the caveat, ‘very generally speaking’. Whilst there is an undeniable element of such role-playing – hardly surprising in the work of a born musical dramatist – what also struck me was how it did not seem at all fanciful to gain an overall impression of regaining the ancient music we have lost: not in any reconstructive or even restorative sense, but as a reimagination of the primæval world of the Orphic lyre. Violence and beauty are fiercely present, with the countertenor providing an appropriately unearthly timbre and also a link to the world of the Baroque aria, presenting a single emotion rather than development (think of Alexander Goehr’s The Death of Moses). Indeed, the way no.13 (Sonnet II) subsided into a silence both earthly and unearthly, following the words ‘in den Himmel, den ihr Hauch nicht trüht,’ was quite spell-binding, for which equal credit must be granted the performers. The coruscating harp glissando upon the word ‘mädchenhandig’ should have banished any suspicion that Rilke’s feminine Lament (Klage) might cloy. No.8, which ends with the words ‘Sieh, die Maschine’ was almost onomatopœic in its mechanical quality, to which both instruments contributed equally (again, nothing ‘occasional’ here!) Gareth Hulse’s oboe almost seemed to speak in the scherzo-like no.23 (‘Ordne die Schreir, singender Gott!’): this could have been a refraction of the memory and afterlife of Orpheus himself. The concision of no.24 put me in mind of Webern: everything that needed to be said was said and then it stopped. And the memory of the only occasionally – in a very different sense – but most movingly relieved monotone of the vocal line of the second half of no.20 (Sonnet V) will remain with me for a long time. To be ‘hearers and a mouth for nature,’ in that sonnet’s words, was what Birtwistle truly accomplished in inimitable fashion.
James MacMillan’s Quintet for horn and string quartet (2007) provided quite a contrast. This was an exciting, extrovert work, which relished the hunting resonances of the horn, of which the splendid Richard Watkins took full advantage. The turbulently striking opening grabbed one’s attention from the outset, as towards did the singing of the richly full-toned viola line of the equally splendid Lawrence Power. A theatrical effect was attained by having the horn player leave the ensemble whilst the quartet continued to play, to be answered from offstage by a haunting horn call, almost reminiscent of Mahlerian Nachtmusik.
The second half brought us the concert’s two world premières. With Alexander Goehr’s quintet for clarinet and string quartet (2007) we returned to the ‘Manchester School’, although it is not clear that the music of Goehr and Birtwistle ever had much in common. If Stravinsky acted as godfather to much of the latter’s music, it is Schoenberg who has exerted so much of an influence over the former, not least via Walter Goehr, himself a Schoenberg pupil. (It is characteristic of a composer who has been so generous with his time and experience to younger composers and to other musicians that, when I spoke to him before the concert, he was far more concerned to enquire after my current research on Schoenberg than to talk about himself and his works.) And beyond Schoenberg, of course, lies Brahms. Brahms is liable to come to mind in any clarinet quintet, but I did wonder whether this single-movement work in twelve sections was in some sense a homage to that most richly autumnal of composers. There was certainly an almost Brahmsian beauty to the string writing, married to an equally characteristic post-Brahms/Schoenberg integrity of motivic working out. This was the case both for work and performance, in which, astonishingly, every line was made to tell as if the Nash Ensemble were presenting an established masterpiece. (I firmly believe from this first hearing that the work will prove to be just that.) The tenth section, an almost Bachian sarabande, provided a still centre to the work’s progression. Once again, the synthesis between counterpoint and Classical form evoked Brahms, or rather an historically mediated memory of his tradition’s concerns. Interestingly – and somewhat enigmatically – the composer himself referred to the inspiration of masses by Josquin and Ockeghem, which, he wrote, ‘probably accounts’ for the quintet’s ‘rather austere and motet-like character’. This, I must admit, was not at all how I heard the music, which I found warm, classically dramatic, and not at all austere.
The final work was Colin Matthews’s The Island (2007), also based upon Rilke, in this case his Neue Gedichte. The three poems of Rilke’s North Sea ‘Insel’, in Stephen Cohn’s excellent translation, are set as a continuous span with instrumental interludes. The vocal line, here treated to a commanding and apparently perfectly judged rendition by Claire Booth, is frankly melodic. At first, it soared above the instrumental ensemble, whose role was definitely to accompany, albeit with a beautiful array of colours and harmonic shifts. Occasional echoing of the vocal line, for instance by the richly expressive alto flute and sweet-toned violin, gradually blossomed into a greater independence for the ensemble, fully exploited during the two evocative interludes. The dark piano chords at the close of the second poem, ‘Upon the outer dyke a sheep appears/larger than life and almost ominous’, were themselves as ominous as the tolling of funeral bells. By the time we reached the third poem, there was a sense both of maintaining the impetus of instrumental development and of completing the cycle by returning or, perhaps better, renewing the opening mood. We had moved on from a tide that ‘wipes out the path across the flats’, to encompass, without forgetting, something ‘outside the course of galaxies, of other stars or suns’. As in every work this programme comprised, the Nash Ensemble and friends did the composers prouder than one might have thought possible.