Thursday, 15 May 2014

Harrison Birtwistle - Gawain, NMC review

New from NMC, a reissue of the recording of Harrison Birtwistle's opera Gawain, being performed live at the Barbican tomorrow, part of the Birtwistle at 80 celebrations. HERE IS THE LINK TO MY REVIEW OF THE CONCERT.This was recorded live by BBC Radio 3 on 20 April 1994 at the Royal Opera House. Elgar Howarth conducted. Soloists included a very young Omar Ebrahim and John Tomlinson, like Birtwistle an Elder Statesmen of British music. Tomlinson is reprising the Green Knight again tomorrow, a role so suited to his voice and artistic persona that he's bound to be commanding, A friend heard him sing this at Salzburg last year, and admired him..

Twenty years later this recording feels like a glimpse into a distant past, which is rather appropriate, since the plot revolves around medieval myth, half-glimpsed through shadows. King Arthur (Arthur Greager) isn't a  merry man, though it's Christmas, which coincides with the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year, when sinister things happen. Morgan Le Fay (Marie Angel) and Lady de Hautdesert ( Anne Howells) chant a strangle duet, their voices overlapping, wavering up and down the scale., their voices underlined by an orchestra which seems at once to wail, shriek and murmur.  "The warp and the weft of innocence", the text perfectly describing the way Birtwistle's music operates.  Arthur wants dangerous thrills: long brass lines surge forwards, probing space.  Suddenly, silence, and Arthur asks, "" in an oddly conversational style. This interjection undercuts the complexity in the music but creates patterns of its own, for interjections recur throughout the opera, sometimes spoken, sometimes as the tolling of bells..

The Green Knight (John Tomlinson) arrives in the midst oif an amazing fugue of  screaming brass and percussion - the hooves of a horse from hell? The Green Knight is a figure from pre-Christian mythology, who connects to Earth spirits, renewal and death. Tomlinson intones his lines with gravity, growling along the lowest point of his register, then suddenly rising to its top, where even he strains, but the tension feels right. Magnificently theatrical. But what follows is even more powerfully written. When The Green Knight takes his leave, the Court is thrown into horrified confusion.The  "Turning of the Seasons" is pivotal. Wild cacophony, but meticulously delineated and measured - Birtwistle, a master of puzzles and mazes, doesn't do indiscipline.  Arthur cries, "it's nothing...nothing...nothing" repeating himself as if to nullify the horror. But perhaps he understand more than he realizes. "a game... an escapade, Christmas mummery, a raree show". Birtwistle relishes games and strategems, patterns in abstract sound. Winter turns to spring, to summer, to autumn and thus to winter, the music turning like a series of tableaux marking time and approaching fate. Wonderful choral singing, which lifts the action away from "characters" into something more primeval and universal.

Huge planes of sound open the Second Act. They're reminiscent of the beginning of the First Act, this time undercut by Morgan Le Fay's shrill, fluttering cries of alarm. She's Fata Morgana, a sorceress whose weapon is illusion. When Birtwistle describes Gawain's journey to destiny, she taunts and tantalizes. The lullaby she sings is poisoned. Lady Hautdesert tries to seduce Gawain, and her husband Bertilak hunts a boar. Seduction and bloodlust: talismanic references to "The Cross of Christ" seem powerless in this primordial struggle.Morgan Le Fay and Bertilak shape shift, creating confusion, as in a nightmare. Francois Le Roux sings Gawain, while Tomlinson sings both The Green Knight and Bertilak, suggesting complexities one can hardly grasp,. Eventually The Green Knight re-emerges. Instead of killing Gawain, he spares him because Gawain has faced himself. "I wanted fame, I loved myself too much, I'm guilty of cowardice, too". So Gawain returns to Camelot, a wiser man. Arthur and the court repeat the same old fomulae ("Who is it"). "Nothing has changed" sings Morgan Le Fay, "....except for dreams of fear and fame, except for lies.....". Birtwistle gives Morgan Le Fay a brilliant coda : the text may be opaque, but the music crackles and sparks. "Look in your mirror, you might see the the image of someone retreating before your face.Think only of dreams and promises..." The vocal line fragments into crazy angles as if a mirror were being smashed. Perhaps the "window" she refers to opens out into alternative reality, closed to fools like Arthur and Guinevere. .
Buy the recording here so the money goes direct to NMC, a not for profit organization that has done almost more than anyone else to promote the best of modern British music.  

More on Birtwistle on this site than anywhere else ! (see also Earth Dances and Theseus Games)

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