This is a great new disc of orchestral music by Birtwistle with the same high quality of earlier works such as "The Triumph of Time" (1971-2)
and "Earth Dances" (1985-6)
. It represents a continuation of Birtwistle's handling of musical time -- "the constant disruption of forward motion, so that the listener has the recurrent sense of having to repeat the journey by a different route, or of retracing steps in a maze -- never finally arriving or getting out" (from the excellent liner notes by Bayan Northcott).
The central and longest piece is "The Shadow of Night" (2001 -- 28'15), commissioned by the BBC and scored for a very large orchestra with six horns, four each trumpets and trombones, and five percussionists. Birtwistle describes it as "a slow and reflective nocturne, exploring the world of melancholy as understood and celebrated by Elizabethan poets and composers... I took inspiration from two dark sources -- the expressions of melancholy in Albrecht Durer's engraving 'Melancholia I' (1514) and John Dowland's song 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell'." He goes on to describe his use of a three-note motif from Dowland's song. The title comes from a long poem by the Elizabethan poet George Chapman where, according to Birtwistle, "melancholy is no longer an inert and depressive mood, but a humour of the night, an inspired spiritual condition."
As described by Northcott, "Shadow of Night" has three parts, "[t]he first is a substantial introductory section of tenebrous and sub-lunary textures, halting melodic fragments and anticipatory upsurges and descents. The second, launched by a magical texture of keening wind phrases over ripplings and rockings for tuned percussion, harps and strings, comprises a long, central nocturne ... eventually gathering in a sustained accelerando ... [and] an almost expressionistic outburst of violence ... midway through the recapitulatory third part, before the music ebbs away beneath a brief skirl of nocturnal birdsong." I don't doubt that some would find this music to be lugubrious, but I have come to love Birtwistle's style, and the slow-moving dynamics to be fascinating.
On the disc "Shadow of Night" follows "Night's Black Bird" (2004 -- 14'04), which was actually written three years later for similarly large forces. It is in the same vein, but half the length, and utilizes Dowland's "Flow My Tears." "Night's Black Bird" is more concise and clear-cut in structure than "Shadow of Night," with a simpler central section and a conclusion without any apocalyptic climaxes. It serves on disc as an accessible introduction to the soundworld that is developed at greater length and with greater complexity in the piece that follows.
There is no single recipe for a satisfying music album. Sometimes variety works, while sometimes it can sound too eclectic. Sometimes developing one consistent sound is powerful and effective, and sometimes it can be too monotonous. Following "Night's Black Bird" and "The Shadow of Night" with the tuba concerto "The Cry of Anubis" (1994 -- 13'24) is a winning gamble that continuing in the dark, melancholy vein will work. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the ancient Egyptian city of the dead, is a character in Birtwistle's never-recorded opera "The Second Mrs. Kong" (1993-4), but "Cry of Anubis" is not an extract, rather it develops some of the opera's material in a new work. Owen Slade masterfully plays the tuba.
These excellent performances by The Halle, the Manchester-based orchestra, led by Ryan Wigglesworth, were made at the BBC Manchester's Studio 7 in July 2010.