When I first heard this 2-disc Birtwistle profile set, part of Decca's series called The British Music Collection, I was decidedly underwhelmed. It took me several years to realize that the problem was in the performance, not the compositions. The liner notes are minimal, so the listener must look elsewhere for information on the compositions.
The first disc contains four pieces recorded in 1993, with Pierre Boulez leading his Ensemble InterContemporain. (The original disc is still available from DG under the title "Secret Theatre.") The best of these is "Tragoedia" (1965 -- 20'33), which established Birtwistle's characteristic sound and reputation -- a tragic work in the form of a ritual, reflecting the influence of both Stravinsky and of drama. "Five Distances for Five Instruments" (1993 -- 13'52) features one of Birtwistle's most characteristic types of instrumentation -- woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, flute, horn and bass clarinet). Birtwistle began as a clarinettist. "Three Settings of Celan" (1989-1996 -- 13'32) continues the lugubrious tone with Christine Whittlesey singing soprano. By 1996 Birtwistle would complete nine settings, and they would be combined with string quartet pieces in Pulse Shadows, which was recorded by Claron McFadden with the Nash Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet.
Finally comes "Secret Theatre" (1984 -- 27'48) which is painfully dull. I first thought it was the composition, but I recently heard the 1987 recording by the London Sinfonietta, and it is absolutely splendid! This performance drains all the vitality out of the piece. It plods grimly along while the London Sinfonietta dances. This one takes place in an airless vault while the other is outdoors in a glade with the wind blowing through the ensemble. Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain utterly fail to capture the work's rhythmic dynamism and liveliness, while the London Sinfonietta, led by Birtwistle's old friend Elgar Howarth, reveals its immense appeal.
The second disc is much better. "Endless Parade" (19'25), featuring Hakan Hardenberger on trumpet, is lively enough, though not particularly distinctive. "Panic" (18'21) from the great god Pan, featuring John Harle on alto sax and Paul Clarvis on drums was a big scandal at the Last Night of Proms in 1995, though you'd think the scandal would be playing the same 19th century stuff over and over and over again! It is not at all typical of Birtwistle, but it is a powerful piece with an avant-jazz sound, and the listener can't help but think about the Proms crowd's hostile reaction. The highlight, though, is "Earth Dances" (1986 -- 36'26), performed by the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting. One of Birtwistle's masterpieces, it is powerful, dissonant and forbidding, with six jagged layers of orchestra forming the structure, like a rugged, geological "Gruppen." If this was the only recording available it would be impressive enough, but it has been altogether surpassed by the 2001 recording with Pierre Boulez leading the Ensemble Modern Orchestra in Frankfurt (see my review). This time Boulez took Birtwistle's measure!
This set was my introduction to Birtwistle back in 2002. I was under the false impression that he was a serialist, based, I suppose, on the Boulez connection -- a dull and largely boring one. But now I have heard many more of his compositions and have come to consider him one of very best contemporary composers. Far from being dull or generic, Birtwistle has a powerfully distinctive voice unique in all of music!
This set is flawed, but still worth hearing. I would recommend either the London Sinfonietta or Ensemble Modern discs mentioned above as better introductions, or the excellent 1974 Lyrita disc that was recently reissued (see my review), with two superb vocal works bookending one of Birtwistle's masterpieces, "Verses for Ensembles."
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