Sunday, 21 August 2011

Birtwistle Angel Fighter Prom Cadogan Hall

Harrison Birtwistle acts nonchalant but delivers seriously. Angel Fighter? (BBC Prom Saturday matinee, Cadogan Hall) Sounds flippant but in fact refers to an all-night cosmic struggle between Jakob and a divine being. Jakob wins and is renamed Israel by the Angel but loses part of his body. Is this a struggle between man and God, and why? Theologians, mystics and Jungians could read much into this. Birtwistle doesn't say, but his music creates such atmosphere that you're drawn in almost as if you're participating.

Shards of dark chords, bright silvery woodwind and brass, alertness, listening. Then the chorus calls, Jakob, wake up! Wonderful mix of circular wailing and staccato, and Jakob (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) enters, confused. Do we hear the sound of heavy wings beating the air? "I cannot see!" cries Jakob, confused, "Save me!" Do we hear his fear in the zigzag undulations of the vocal line? Then the angel (Andrew Watts, countertenor) appears, heralded in a wave of clear, pure almost electronic sound. The two voices stalk and entwine each other. Circular themes in the orchestra, throwing and flipping over: wrestling in music. The London Sinfonietta under one of its founders, David Atherton, are at in peak form again, challenged by music they can really come to grips with.  This feels like struggle, churning, pausing, turning. Two sumo-like figures observing each other, grappling, falling back to re-engage again. Staccato thuds, but always a sense of danger : Keep alert, keep listening.

There seems to be a progression of moods, culminating in a whirring, discordant climax which dissipates once more to the two protagonists, facing each other. Emotionally this is very intense, very physical. One thinks of the Oracle in The Minotaur (also sung by Andrew Watts), but also of the muscularity of the Minotaur himself. Maybe that's why the orchestra stamps quiet ostinato, like a beast at bay. Follow the text and you know the ending is near, yet it still creeps up by stealth and catches you unawares as the tenor's voice cuts off mid flow, high on the scale.  This is Birtwistle at his impenetrable, thorny best, much much better than the fairly inchoate Corridor in 2009, definitely up with Birtwistle's greatest. Listen to this again on BBC repeat (starts 48 minutes into the programme).

Wrestling too, on a more esoteric plane in Georges Aperghis's Champ-Contrechamp. The title refers to multiple frames in film, creating parallel images which may or may not meet. Extremely fast, flickering lines, the pianist, Nicolas Hodges, throwing out percussive series of notes, cross cut with similarly electric spark from the orchestra. Up and up the keyboard Hodges goes, teasing and taunting the orchestra, who fight back: nice blurred brass, like they're blowing raspberries. Hodges hits the other side of the keyboard, big, reverberant ostinato that echoes into the void. Is the orchestra silenced? Ultra high pitched responses, so squeaky you almost wince. Fabulously zany interplay between the two protagonists, plenty of inventive incident to keep you alert. It's wonderful that this is a BBC commission and world premiere, for Champ-Contrechamp is way above average and way beyond mundane. An extremely rewarding piece, which repays repeat listening.

It's such joy to hear the London Sinfonietta in full glory again! I went many years without missing a single concert but it's been ages since I had so much fun.

Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davies were close once, then at loggerheads. But they seem to get progarmmed together more now that they're both Grand Old Men of British Music. Max's Il rozzo martello was written nearly 20 years ago, part of Max's fascination with Italianate figures and landscapes. The reference is to Michelangelo and the sculptor's tool breaking into marble in the process of creating art. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken the title to heart, for the music is a delicate filgree that floats about like incense on a  breezy piazza. It's attractive but it doesn't last.

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