This is a most welcome 2008 NMC reissue of recordings by the London Sinfonietta from 1987, led by Elgar Howarth. Birtwistle wrote his 1969 breakthrough "Verses for Ensembles" for the LS, and the new music ensemble has a clear grasp of the composer's vision. "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum" (1977 -- 9'25) and "Silbury Air" (1977 -- 16'15) were written before Birtwistle became totally immersed in his epic "Mask of Orpheus," while "Secret Theatre" (1984 -- 31'52) was written immediately after he completed it.
The most informative liner notes are written by Birtwistle expert Jonathan Cross (see his excellent books on both Birtwistle and Stravinsky, and my reviews of both). As Cross explains, "six so-called musical mechanisms are juxtaposed throughout ["Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum," or Perpetual Song of Mechanical Arcady] ... each presented in turn at the start, and then recurring in different guises and orders to form a jewelled musical mosaic." Each mechanism has a distinctive rhythm. "The opening block, for example, presents a jaunty, asymmetrical dance in triple time." The piece is clearly inspired by Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," an influence often acknowleged by Birtwistle.
Again quoting Cross: "...both composers are fascinated by myth and ritual; the structural importance of rhythm is significant to both, resulting in the construction of new kinds of musical time; both composers have attempted to build musical forms through non-narrative means, such as the opposition or superimposition of blocks of contrasting material; and both composers are interested more in repeating, variation and verse-refrain structures than they are in musical development. In many respects the three works represented on this disk are the most 'Stravinskian' of all Birtwistle's output."
"Silbury Air" is a ritual evocation of Silbury Hill, a prehistoric 40 metre high structure on the Wiltshire plains whose origins and uses remain a mystery. Birtwistle calls it "an artificial but organic intruder of the landscape," and he attempts to represent its combination of nature and artifice. The work's imaginary landscape is composed of blocks of music that are juxtaposed and repeated, moving through a "pulse labyrinth" that regulates their movement, including layered blocks moving at different speeds, resulting in a "continually shifting kaleidoscope," a "complex clock mechanism."
Both of the 1977 works, like "Verses for Ensemble," feature woodwinds, brass and percussion, giving them a distinctively brash timbre. "Secret Theatre" includes strings, but in a secondary role, continuing in basically the same timbre. "Mask of Orpheus" likewise did not use strings.
The title comes from a Robert Graves poem:
When from your sleepy mind the day's burden
Falls like a bushel sack on a barn floor,
Be prepared for music, for natural mirages
And for night's incomparable parade of colour.
It is hours past midnight now; a flute signals
Far off; we mount the stage as though at random,
Boldly ring down the curtain, then dance out our love.
So not only is the piece a secret nocturnal theatre, it is also a dance, as Cross suggests, perhaps the secret love dance of Orpheus and Eurydice. Opening passages for strings and flute are marked in the score "continuum" and "cantus," and the constantly changing relationship between the two provides the central structure for the piece. And as is Birwistle's wont, this is acted out on stage by the performers, with the members of the continuum remaining seated while soloists (the cantus) periodically move to stand on a dais at the back of the stage.
This superb performance might not be fully appreciated if it could not be contrasted with a bad performance, but that contrast has been provided by the 1993 recording of "Secret Theatre" by the Ensemble Intercontemporain led by Pierre Boulez on DG, later included in the Birtwistle (The British Music Collection) set. The London Sinfonietta plays with great rhythmic vitality while the EI plods. Here one can feel the wind blowing through a midnight glade, while listening to the EI recording the listener feels as if trapped in an airless vault. Howarth and the LS brilliantly bring to life Birtwistle's pastoral vision.
This NMC disc is essential Birtwistle, not to be missed by any fan!