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Birtwistle: Theseus Game; Earth Dances

5.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Orchestra: Ensemble Modern Orchestra
  • Conductor: Pierre Boulez, Martyn Brabbins, Pierre-André Valade
  • Composer: Harrison Birtwistle
  • Audio CD (9 Aug. 2004)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B0002ANQWW
  • Other Editions: MP3 Download
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 323,920 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Birtwistle has always enjoyed making things theatrical, even in a concert hall context. Drama, you could say, rather than any truck with classical structures such as sonata-form, is what drives and forms his music.
That is certainly true of both the pieces on this disc. Theseus Game is the more overtly and visually dramatic of the two. Along with pieces like Secret Theatre or the Ritual Fragment written in memory of Michael Vyner, there are a succession of instrumental soloists, dramatic protagonists who literally come to the front of stage for their moment in the limelight. The game that Theseus plays here is to follow Ariadne's thread out of the Minotaur's Labyrinth and the thread that he follows is a continuously evolving melodic line that functions as a cantus above two supporting instrumental ensembles. Birtwistle's fascination with layering different rhythmic patterns over each other (also a crucial driving force in Earth Dances) demands two different ensembles, each with their own conductor. The soloists emerge from these groups and, having played their solos and passed the melody on to the next soloist, often switch allegiances between groups and conductors. A further layer is added by the brass players who at times stand behind each of the ensembles and, Gruppen like, volley fanfares to each other across the space between. If this all sounds intimidatingly technical and complex, don't be phased. Think of a passage like the entry of the mastersingers in Act 1 of Der Meistersinger where a constantly changing and shifting melodic line evolves over a chattering rhythmic accompaniment and you'll have a handle on its antecedents. Then come via the Obbligato Recitative, the last movement of Schoenberg's Op.
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Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Finally despairing of this disc ever being released across the pond, I coughed up the exchange rate so I could hear it before it went out of print entirely. And I don't regret it! This is one of the finest releases in the DG 20/21 series, and it is an ongoing mystery why it alone of the series has never been released Stateside.
"Theseus Game" is a fantastic recent work (2002), a concerto for orchestra, with the thread of melody passed from one soloist to the next, winding through a complex, dynamic orchestral score. This is a live recording of the work's premiere performance in September 2003. The Ensemble Modern is broken into two groups, a la Elliott Carter, and conducted by both Martyn Brabbins and Pierre-Andre Valade. The recorded version lacks the spatial dimension of a live performance, as the performers are dispersed, and move about, layering the sounds.
The new live recording of "Earth Dances," one of Birtwistle's masterpieces, is great, a big improvement over the quite fine earlier recording by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Dohnanyi. This one, from October 2001 in Frankfurt, is conducted by none other than Pierre Boulez, and performed by an expanded Ensemble Modern Orchestra. It is tighter, more dynamic, more convincing, more visceral, and more powerful than ever before.
All in all, a great set of modern music!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars 2 reviews
2 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Two disappointments, one in the writing and the other in the recording 12 April 2009
By Christopher Culver - Published on
Format: Audio CD
Harrison Birtwistle is one of the few English composers to attract the attention of Pierre Boulez, and this 2005 disc in Deutsche Grammophon's "20/21" series has Boulez conducting the Ensemble Modern in two mighty Birtwistle pieces. First up is the 30-minute "Earth Dances" (1985-86), which I found a chore to listen to. My problem with this piece, as with so much of Birtwistle's music, is not the atonal language, but rather that the music is just so relentlessly percussive and grim. It would be nice if Birtwistle could have offered some brief moments of lightless and airiness instead of all this hammering. That's not to say it's all bad, for there are parts of these works that are fairly entertaining, such as the dance-like close, but there's not enough balance throughout..

The following "Theseus Game" (2002) provides some much needed contrast. Here the orchestra is split in two, each half getting its own conductor (Martyn Brabbins joins Boulez). The spatial aspect of the work, which highlights the fact that each half of the orchestra is moving at a different tempo than the other, is unfortunately lost here. Like Stockhausen's "Gruppen", this is a piece that in stereo recording is pretty pleasant to listen to, but completely unrepresentative of what it's actually trying to say. The listener just has to be context with some nice Webern-like angularities and vaguely unwholesome brass calls, but that's not enough to make it worth returning to.

I find Birtwistle a very minor figure of the contemporary music scene, and the only work of his that I've found memorable is his remarkable "Pulse Shadows" on poems of Paul Celan for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble (available on a Teldec disc). I imagine this disc will appeal mostly to those who have already heard one of the more legendary Birtwistle discs and have decided they like what he's on about.
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