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!
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.16 Orchestral Pieces, where a cadenceless melody seems to be capable of developing indefinitely. Yes, Birtwistle's material is tougher and more 'modern', but allow it just to penetrate to your subconscious and its excitements and beauties will reveal themselves. The performance on this disc from the World Premiere is a fine one. If I'm honest, I remember getting an even stronger feeling of the continuity of that ever evolving cantus line from the British Premiere performance, part of Sir Harry's birthday celebrations. Nonetheless, I would recommend this performance highly to anyone with an interest in contemporary music. Earth Dances has become something of a modern classic with several recordings already behind it. Hailed at its premiere as a Rite of Spring for the Eighties, it is actually something deeper and even more primeval than that. Where the Rite is about the Earth's mystical and mythical capacity to renew itself each Spring, Earth Dances is about the very creation of the Earth. It is about the movement of continents and the shifting of tectonic plates, about the grindings of rock strata against each other and the huge Gaean dances they produce. Previous recordings by the likes of Eotvos and von Dohnanyi have tended to play up the picturesque aspects of the work. Boulez brings his predictably analytical eye to the work, investing the complicated textures with clarity and air. The result is a performance that, to my ear, brings out the 'Dance' elements of the piece as well as its 'Earthy' side more than ever before. The precision Boulez gives to the differing rhythmic cells allows each of them the freedom to exist in their own right and to reflect or contrast with all their fellow-cells and that throws a refreshing and distinctly clearer light on the piece. This disc has just won Gramophone's Contemporary Recording of the Year Award. And fully deserves it.