Hall One, Kings Place
Saraband: The King’s Farewell (2001)Ostinato with Melody (2000)
Orpheus Elegies (2003-4): Elegies 1, 3, 4, 14, 6, 10, 15, 13, 12, 21, 22, 25, 9, 16, 20, 19
Gigue Machine (2011)
The Axe Manual (2000)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Christian Dierstein (percussion)
Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
Helen Tunstall (harp)
Gigue Machine for solo piano sounded every bit the gigue, every bit the machine. Again, it was Schoenberg – as well, of course as Birtwistle – who sprang to mind, the Baroque reimaginings of the op.25 Suite reinvented, consciously or otherwise. Mechanical intricacy was the order of the day, both in work and Hodges’s fine performance. Joined by percussionist Christian Dierstein, the pianist proved just as much at home, as did his partner, in an exhilarating account of The Axe Manual. Changing roles and weighting intrigued, percussion seemingly first ‘shadowing’ piano, and then vice versa, though of course it was never quite so straightforward as that; there were always ghosts, and ever-changing ghosts at that, in this machine and its manual. Drums offered a different relationship with piano from that explored with tuned percussion. The piano as an instrument showed itself both invariant and infinitely varied, echoing the certain/uncertain dialectic we had heard in the contemporaneous Ostinato with Melody. Instruments likewise merged and yet remained distinct. Rhythm of course was very much a guiding principle, both to work and performance, but far from the only one; Birtwistle’s melodic gift is every inch as remarkable, every inch as obstinately, bloody-mindedly ‘English’. Yet there has never been anything remotely insular about this country’s greatest composer since Purcell; shades of Stravinsky (Les Noces) and Boulez (Le Marteau and, I think, sur Incises) just as apparent and yet just as transformed as ‘Englishness’ or the distant yet present ‘archaic’.
A post-concert discussion was notable primarily for the ease with which, once again, Birtwistle demolished the uncertain, meandering questioning of a certain, well-nigh ubiquitous journalist. The Minotaur now beckons at Covent Garden.