"The Triumph of Time" (29'38) 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 recording of the great Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Elgar Howarth, a close friend of the composer, is from 1993. "Gawain's Journey" (24'37), an orchestral suite from Birtwistle's 1991 opera Gawain, was also recorded at that session. This 12-movement work is more engaging and accessible than "Time," with grand noble gestures that suggest a Birtwistle-Wagner hybrid. The movements have titles from the medieval tale and the opera which make clear the programmatic content -- "He Strikes the Blow," "Seduction Scene," and so on. "Gawain" is Birtwistle's most conventional opera, with a linear narrative and this neo-Wagnerian score. While impressive, it is not one of his best works.
Also included in this 2004 NMC disc, which reissues the two orchestral pieces, originally released on a Collins disc in 1993, is "Ritual Fragment" (11'23), written for and performed by the London Sinfonietta. This is a fine piece written in honor of the Sinfonietta's director, Michael Vyner, upon his death in 1989, while Birtwistle was immersed in writing "Gawain." It was Vyner who commissioned a series of major Birtwistle compositions, including "Verses for Ensembles", "Secret Theatre," "Silbury Air," and "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum." The organization of the piece is simple and dramatic, with ten soloists from the 15-member ensemble moving in turn to the front of the stage and performing a solo.
I would recommend either of the discs just mentioned as better introductions to those just exploring the composer's works. But this is a fine NMC collection, especially for the critical "Triumph of Time."