Thursday 24 May 2012

London Sinfonietta/Atherton - 'In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle', 24 May 2012

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Five Distances
Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
In Broken Images, after Gabrieli (British premiere)

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)

From his remarks in conversation with Tom Service, it would seem that Sir Harrison Birtwistle was given free rein, presumably within reason, to select the pieces to be performed in this 'In Portrait' concert. He elected to programme two pieces requiring a conductor in the second half, but two without in the first. Indeed, he had recalled, when composing Ritual Fragment, in memory of Michael Vyner, the London Sinfonietta's artistic director, that he had thought conductors overrated, and had therefore set out to write a piece that would not require one. That 1989 work formed the basis for the 2007 Cortege, the first piece performed this evening. (It is also dedicated to Vyner's memory.) Ritual is fundamental to so much of Birtwistle's music, but it is perhaps especially overt here. One has the sense of an offering, in which all but four of the fourteen players come to the front as soloists, sometimes overlapping, to make their own, personal remembrance or tribute, 'like giving flowers'. The opening trumpet solo put me in mind of the opening of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and not just, at least I think not, because I had, but a week ago, heard Alistair Mackie, also principal trumpet for the Philharmonia, open that work with equal commitment. Thoughts of Mahler's Fifth recurred to me throughout: maybe just coincidence, but no less real a personal experience for that. Written whilst Birtwistle was at work on Gawain, and thus immersed in the Ring, the presence of bass trumpet brought, as the composer himself remarked, Götterdämmerung to mind. Perhaps inevitably in such a context, bass drum thwacks also suggested Mahler's Tenth Symphony, though here the structural function, if perhaps not entirely dissimilar, is by the same token not the same. The drum strokes provide solo cues, anchoring the piece together, 'decorated upbeat' and downbeat assuming something of the conductor's role. As ever in Birtwistle's work, different perspectives are very much part of the concept. And as so often, there is a sense, a raw, violent sense, of the antique. Loss, melancholy, defiant tribute came together in a deeply moving work and performance. Moreover, the final flute solo (Michael Cox) provided a true sense of summation, not just in itself, but on account of the flautist's walk around the semicircle, to invite, as it were, his soloist colleagues to remember, briefly, their remembrances.

Five Distances, for five instruments (1992) was next up. Birtwistle recalled having played a good number of French wind quintets when young, but it is difficult to find much common ground between boutique neo-Classicism and this spatial reimagining of the ensemble. Placed as far apart as they could be - well, almost - around the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the players, or perhaps rather their music, celebrate and dramatise difference rather than similarity. After all, as Birtwistle pointed out, the only truly related instruments in the ensemble are oboe and bassoon, and even in that case, the difference in register is striking. Michael Thompson's resplendent horn performed a role similar in a sense to the previous piece's bass drum, setting the tempo and setting up the vertical music, whereas the horizontal music is different whenever it is played. The score's thorny beauties were expertly conveyed, the effect at times perhaps not entirely unlike a harsh Northern landscape.

After the interval, we were treated to a fine performance, under David Atherton's direction, of the 1977 work, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Just as illuminating, both in general terms and with more specific reference to this work, was what Birtwistle had to say beforehand. Strikingly, he announced, 'I consider myself to be a sort of 1910 modernist. ... Cubism is my thing.' Citing Picasso – ‘everything he did was radical’ – and Braque, he noted that more theory came out of Cubism than necessarily went into it at the time. Nevertheless, this ‘Perpetual Song of a Mechanical Arcadia’ was, he thought, a work quite without concessions, without compromise, and indeed it sets out in almost textbook fashion so many typical Birtwistle techniques or concepts: verse forms and refrains, clockwork determinism – I thought more than once of the more recent Harrison’s Clocks, for piano solo – layering of material, in which one has an independent layer of dynamics, another of registers, and so on: all of these and indeed a good few others are present and correct. So very correct, in a work in which Birtwistle, at work on his incidental music for Tony Harrison’s National Theatre translation of the Oresteia, wished to evoke the effect of a Roman title inscription, foursquare, without punctuation, upon the wall.
Reading at the time Paul Klee’s pedagogical works, especially interested in Klee’s understanding of the nature of material, he was inspired also by Klee’s concept of the ‘dividual’ – as opposed to the ‘individual’ – in which, like a frieze or wallpaper, a part could be taken away and yet the thing itself would remain. And so, one could imagine the larger frieze Birtwistle had created, from which part had randomly – perhaps – been cut. From the independent layers, tightly controlled, random things could still arise; another preoccupation at the time was random number theory. And the riveting drama of the fermatas was unmistakeably Birtwistle’s, again both in work and in performance.

Finally came the United Kingdom premiere of the 2011 work, In Broken Images, first performed by the London Sinfonietta at the MiTo Settembre Musica Festival. Its title derives from a Robert Graves poem; it was intriguing to hear Birtwistle speak in this reference of how he no longer needs to create a greater whole from which to cut; he can now, in his own words, ‘fake it’. The four sections of the orchestra, strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion are seated separately in blocks, clearly a reference to Gabrieli’s polychoral writing. Moreover, in another sign of tribute, it is with brass that the work opens, Stravinskian fanfares coming to mind as another reference point. Once again, a mechanistic quality of layering was brought powerfully to the fore in another, unmistakeably hieratic composition. I wondered a little, despite the undoubted accomplishment, whether there was slightly a sense of retreading old ground, but this was but a first hearing, and I should not be remotely surprised to discern new paths upon further listening.