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CD Review

Harrison Birtwistle

Night's Black Bird

  • Night's Black Bird
  • The Shadow of Night
  • The Cry of Anubis*
* Owen Slade, tuba
Hallé Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth
NMC D156
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This is an important CD of stunningly beautiful works by Harrison Birtwistle; they're each played to an extremely high standard by the Hallé under the ever more impressive Ryan Wigglesworth. The conductor sums up what for many listeners will be an immediate, deep and lasting connection to the music when he suggests in his apposite and insightful introductory note that Birtwistle's music draws in equal measure on terror and calm, violence and tenderness. Maybe because the composer is totally conscious of his roots in the milieu of the industrial north of England during the twentieth century. Here the mesmerizing monotony of factory work and the obscenity of low wages for it were in some way counterbalanced by the strong culture of resistance and sense of self-worth despite such oppression. This is music full of tension redolent of that way of life, not specifically referencing it; and certainly not pinned to it. Yet somehow using the blackness referred to directly and obliquely in two of the pieces' titles not so much to set the scene as to evoke a very deep feeling from the composer.

This music is far from monotonous, though its textures may remind us of the penetration into peoples' lives of the bleakness, dark determination and damp, dour doggedness. It's all recorded here for the first time – and recorded with great sympathy and sensitivity to Birtwistle's forceful and thoughtful sound world. Wigglesworth aptly describes what you will hear in these three pieces as "craggy lyricism". They're certainly rough without being angular. And utterly lyrical.

This totality of sound, which is matched by careful, pointed, highly-wrought and closely, intricately-conceived detail, is evident in all three pieces here. To describe them as mellow would be wrong, as it would be to suggest that they are as demanding as some of Harrison Birtwistle's other work. Each is certainly as reflective as ever. Tempi vary as ideas are introduced and develop… the slowing of pace half way through The Shadow of Night [tr.2], the longest piece on the CD at nearly 30 minutes, for example, is not for effect, or for mere variety's sake. It's to increase the tension, to tighten the knot, to draw in the ends of the rope that binds the music – in more ways than one, rather than let them out. At the same time there is much freshness, of instrumentation, of orchestral grouping: percussion and brass then strings and brass, then woodwind and percussion and so on. But at all points the Hallé is in full control and slowly, painstakingly, magically reveals the architecture of this (and the other two) compositions. At the same time Wigglesworth gives the impression that the musicians are exploring the dismal caves or dungeons depicted by Birtwistle with us, for the first time. As a novel and adventurous experience. Though quite lacking in any tentativeness. Splendid command of the idiom and its music's expected and necessary, and very confident, paths to fruition.

There is no doubt that these pieces appeal to the melancholy in all of us, and originate in the melancholy of Harrison Birtwistle. It's a melancholy not so much of mood or disposition; but one borne of an awareness of fate, chance loss, erosion. And out of this potential for defeat the act of composing (such elegant, profound and essentially paradoxically affirmative music) can be made to emerge thanks to the stubbornness of the aforementioned geographical and historical location into which Birtwistle must fit. Map onto this almost wry self-awareness a sense of the dramatic (listen to the solo woodwind moments towards the end of the same The Shadow of Night) and the dimensions .

The Cry of Anubis is unusual: more explicitly animated than the other two pieces here, it makes an intriguing foil to the textures – especially of the almost morose Night's Black Bird, which acknowledges the formal melancholy of the Elizabethan, of the fascination with the nocturnal by the inclusion of a tuba, played with great gusto by Owen Slade. Although the world is of ancient Egypt, surely such an instrument is redolent of the brass bands, listening to which Harrison Birtwistle grew up. Not for nothing is the score of Night's Black Bird prefaced with a short poem by Stephen Pruslin, librettist of the first opera by Birtwistle, Punch and Judy, alluding to the last judgement. But, as with the rest of the music here, this is far from a portrait of "doom"; more one exceptionally self-aware and thoughtful artist's response to it and steadfast tenacity in confronting it. And highly successfully so.

The acoustic of the BBC Manchester's Studio 7 does much to focus our listening… it's spacious without being boomy; and sympathetic to the size of the orchestral forces here playing without pushing them too far forward – or holding them back for that matter: this is striking music. As mentioned, the notes that come with this excellent NMC CD make useful introductions to those new to this composer's world; and direct those already familiar with it to some perhaps new and/or particular aspects necessary to get the most from this sumptuous and biting music. Harrison Birtwistle devotees will not hesitate; those keen to know why the composer is so highly regarded could do a lot worse than start here. Very warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.