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Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets CD

4.5 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Performer: Arditti Quartet
  • Composer: Harrison Birtwistle
  • Audio CD (21 May 2012)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Format: CD
  • Label: Aeon
  • Other Editions: Audio CD  |  MP3 Download
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 137,884 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
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Product Description


These two works, completed in 1996 and 2007, are Harrison Birtwistle's only pieces for string quartet to date. The earlier Nine Movements began as one element in the meditations on Paul Celan, Pulse Shadows, an interlocking sequence of vocal and instrumental pieces built around Celan's poetry. However, Birtwistle always intended that the cycle could be split into its component parts and the quartet movements a sequence of fantasias and friezes, the last entitled Todesfuge, echoing one of Celan's most famous poems performed separately as they are here. The Tree of Strings has poetic connections, too, for the title is taken from a poem in Gaelic by Sorley MacLean, who was born on the island of Raasay, where the composer himself lived in the 1980s. Birtwistle's half-hour piece is an evocation of that island and its history, a place in which musical performance was once prohibited by religious decree, and which lost most of its population to the Highland clearances in the mid 19th century. It's one of the most powerful of his recent works, alternating moments of total stillness with passages of great athleticism and rhythmic energy, or long, continuously evolving melodic lines. It carries the sense of Raasay's desolation into the music, too, as towards the end of the work the four players gradually move farther apart on the platform until finally they exit the stage altogether, leaving the cellist to bring the piece to its stuttering close alone. Both works were composed for the Arditti Quartet who have recorded the Nine Movements before, as part of a Teldec disc of the complete Pulse Shadows; their performances here are even more remarkable for their clarity, precision and grasp of the music's intricate structure. --Andrew Clements - The Guardian (5 star review)

Customer Reviews

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The sound quality on this disc is stunning as is the Arditti's playing. The clarity, precision and and sheer presence make this unforgettable. It will take longer for the music itself to reveal itself (to me anyway) but as it is, a few months into listening, it has a magnetic effect - it absorbs your whole attention. Both works were composed for the Arditti Quartet and it is moot perhaps as to whether the composer's experience or the increasing mastery of the Quartet spur the other to greater achievement. Superb.
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Harrison Birtwistle is definitely an interesting case. Much of what he has composed is rather sharp on the ear. Many years back I was impressed by the uncompromising pungency of Verses and Refrains - not the best material to listen to when relaxing and lounging by the pool on holiday, but nonetheless a voice and a vision. I went to the Glyndebourne staging of The Last Supper, and to one of the first performances of The Minotaur. Both seemed to me to be failures - the Last Supper absolutely lacked any forward dramatic momentum, while the Minotaur seemed a bit like its lead part - a buzz of mental action locked in a cage with sharp edges. On both occasions I found I was aching for it all to end.

Then more recently I bought CD's, this one here of the Arditti playing his string quartet music and the fine NMC disc of Night's Black Bird, Shadow of Night and Cry of Anubis. One always has to be a little wary because the Arditti could make the random scratchings of a monkey sound authentic and impressive, but actually wow here is Birtwistle finally doing what everyone else seems to have ignored for the past eighty years, and that's to step out to follow up where Stravinsky's path might lead. He is also drawing from Carter and Nancarrow which I'm glad to hear - we need development in music that has better intermeshing. The Tree of Strings quartet undoubtedly is positive music despite the slightly strange tale about Raasay that accompanies it. In the case of Cry of Anubis, it is no surprise that Birtwistle struggles to coax a rewarding sound out of the tuba as a solo instrument (why try?), but the other two works on the NMC disc have striking presences and I have listened to them quite a few times with pleasure.

So while for me Birtwistle is a pretty mixed bag, I certainly enjoyed the quartets here. They are beautifully played and recorded.
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Muss es sein? Yes, Birtwistle's music is gritty, hard-edged, uncomprising, iconoclastic and so forth, but does it really have to invite performances as charmless as this? Irvine Arditti and his quartet are versatile players faced with challenging scores: yet the relentlessly hypertensive sounds makes this CD a prime candidate for the Grand Order of Scratch and Scrape. I enjoyed very little of this as performance. Is it the music's fault, though? The Tree of Life is full of textural invention, and, in their own way so are the collection of Nine Movements. But before I apportion blame I'd like to hear traditional performers 'have a go' (for example, the recent CD of 'Chamber Music' on ECM 2253 is nothing but rewarding on the part of its singers and players). I'm not persudade that it is HB's medium at all, actually. Most of the great quartet composers have been string players, and I can't imagine a cello tucked between Sir Harry's legs ...
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