This reissue in the 20C series from Universal, featuring material from the vaults of both Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, collects three recordings never before on the same disc together.
"The Triumph of Time" (27'48) is one of Harrison Birtwistle's key early works, written in 1971-2. Along with "Verses for Ensembles," it is a site for "...an approach to musical and dramatic time that abandons conventional linear narrative but treats past, present and future as interchangeable or simultaneous" (from the fine liner notes by Andrew Clements). It paved the way for his massive opera "The Mask of Orpheus," as an essential strand in the legend is the passage of time and its irreversibility. Birtwistle first conceived of the "Orpheus" opera in 1970. "Time" is a slow, grinding procession -- it does not dance in the slightest (as does the later "Earth Dances" for orchestra of 1986), and is not the most accessible introduction to the composer's work. It is a vast abstract slab in nine movements, dark and forbidding, with a massive climax in the penultimate eighth movement, but once you come to appreciate Birtwistle, you might, as I, come to hear it as fascinating in its slow-moving changes, similar to the revolving prism of small changes in the late Feldman, but on a more vast and rugged sonic terrain.
This was the first Birtwistle composition to be inspired by Peter Breughel the Elder's painting, but not the last. It depicts Time as a bearded figure in a cart at the head of a procession that includes Death and Fame, crushing the ephemera of human existence under its wheels. Only the cyclical events are impervious -- the tides, the changing seasons, and winds. I have never read anything suggesting that Birtwistle is a Buddhist, but this perspective, which he returns to again and again, is certainly compatible with the core Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, which leads to the insight that grasping is a source of discontent.
This original 1975 recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Pierre Boulez, is appearing in its "first international CD release," according to the liner notes. It sounds fine, but is put utterly in the shade by the 1993 recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Birtwistle's close friend Elgar Howarth. By comparison, this Boulez-led recording is gauzy and impressionistic, while the NMC recording of Howarth & the Philharmonia is sharp and vivid, revealing every detail in stunning relief. This is quite ironic, given Boulez's reputation, but the NMC disc must be heard to properly appreciate the important and impressive "Triumph of Time."
"Panic" (18'21), from the great god Pan, featuring John Harle on alto sax and Paul Clarvis on drums with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 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. This recording is also available in the 2001 The British Music Collection: Harrison Birtwistle disc.
"Earth Dances" (33'22) is a 2001 live recording with Pierre Boulez leading the Ensemble Modern Orchestra in Frankfurt. This is the best recording of this awesome work, clearly superior to the performance by the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting, which can be found in the British Music Collection set. 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." This time Boulez took Birtwistle's measure, with a performance that is tighter, more dynamic, more visceral and powerful than the earlier Cleveland performance.
This recording of "Earth Dances" is the reason to pick up this 20C disc if you missed its original release in the DG 20/21 series in 2004. Unfortunately the other excellent orchestral work on that disc, "Theseus Games," remains unavailable.
The 20C package is all cardboard -- no plastic jewel case. There is a 16-page booklet with informative liner notes by Nigel Simeone in English, German, and French.