This disc is the Lyrita reissue of a 1974 LP, recorded in 1973, with three great compositions by Harrison Birtwistle in superb performances. One half of the album is the powerful instrumental "Verses for Ensembles" (1969 -- 28'13), and the other half is made up of two works featuring vocals -- "The Fields of Sorrow" (1972 -- 9'58) and "Nenia: The Death of Orpheus" (1970 -- 17'45).
Birtwistle's writing has long centered on his operas. "Verses for Ensembles" followed on and continued in the vein of Punch and Judy from 1967. Both utilized a sectional style and are characterized by violence and barely contained violence. "Verses" is written for three homogenous groups: a percussion trio, a woodwind quintet, and a brass quintet. There are 26 sections composed of the alternation, juxtaposition, and repetition of small blocks of material. This is music that while clearly inspired by Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," has a fierce, rough quality all its own. Performed live, "Verses" has a dramatic, hieratic, element -- the players move to set positions on stage throughout the piece, sitting or standing, and moving to a platform to solo. As Paul Conway says in the outstanding liner notes, "Verses for Ensembles has massive integrity and an immutable presence, craggy and flinty, like a boulder hewn from the earth's crust." It was commissioned by, and is here performed by, the London Sinfonietta, led by David Atherton.
The two vocal works marked the initiation of a new phase in Birtwistle's music, the period which culminated in The Mask of Orpheus, which was finally completed in 1984. "The Fields of Sorrow," which leads off the album, is a lush and radiantly beautiful choral work which is a setting of a Latin text by Decimus Ausonius, based on Virgil's description in "The Aenid" of the souls of two lovers drifting through the forest of Avernus in Hades. Two solo sopranos are situated at the back of the stage behind the chorus, singing wordlessly, representing the two lovers. The chorus slowly declaims the Latin text, with virtually no melodic inflection. A 16-member ensemble including two pianos, vibraphone, solo horn and four groups of woodwinds (flutes, cor anglais, bass clarinets and bassoons) is placed in front. As the liner notes suggest, the piece could be interpreted as the two lovers locked in eternal embrace. "Fields" is also performed by the London Sinfonietta, led by Atherton.
The final work on the album was one that led later to "The Mask of Orpheus." "Nenia: The Death of Orpheus" has lyrics by Peter Zinovieff, who also provided the libretto for the opera. Jane Manning is the soprano vocalist (she also sings one of the two soprano parts on "Fields of Sorrow"), and she is incredible. The vocal part is virtuosic and varied. Says Conway of Manning: "As narrator, she must use Sprechgesang; as Orpheus the melismatic fioriture style associated with Monteverdi, while as Euridice the bel canto style associated with Gluck." In contrast to "Fields of Sorrow," "Nenia" is arch and sometimes humorous. The Matrix instrumental ensemble accompanies Manning, consisting of three bass clarinets, clarinet, piano, prepared piano, and crotales. The contrast between the soprano and the bass clarinets, playing mainly in their low register, is one of the most distinctive aspects of the piece. Birtwistle's background as a clarinetist is more than evident in both "Verses" and "Nenia."
The 12-page booklet includes the lyrics in their entirety in addition to the concise and informative essay by Paul Conway. The cover art is dramatic, stunning and apt, a black-and-white view up from the ground (or in the ground) into the tops of bare trees in winter.
This is an excellent Birtwistle disc, not to be missed. If you are not yet familiar with the British composer, one of the greats of our time, this would be an excellent place to start.
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