|Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Photo credit Simon Harsent)|
Birtwistle will turn 85 in July, but still looks sprightly, his dry humour undimmed. His Duet for Eight Strings (2018-2019) shows that musically he's in top form, as inventive and thought-provoking as ever. He described this Duet as "a string quartet for two players". He put his hands together, fingers intertwined, and moved them to show how the two focal points of the piece connect while remaining distinct. More formally, the piece "alternates between passages of double-stopped chords in rhythmic unison (or near unison) in which the four strings oif the viola and the four of the cello form a single unit of eight strings, 'hocket' passages of rhythmically interlocking exchanges, in which the two/four string units combine to produce a contrasting kind of eight-string texture" (Anthony Burton's programme notes). Seated in the front row, two metres from Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel, that sense of connectedness felt so strong it was as if I was being drawn into the performer's circle of energy : uncommonly intense. Another of Birtwistle's intricate puzzles within puzzles, this one with the extra dimension of drawing the listener. The piece evolves as a series of separate units, hockets as pauses which aren't really silent, but contribute to structure. The sections aren't variations so much as new ideas, imaginatively articulated, yet in typical Birtwistle style, aphoristic and elusive. Such a sense of invisible connections ! My partner said, later, "If Knussen were here, he'd say 'let's do that again !". I thought, too, of Elliott Carter's sense of whimsy. Many happy memories at Aldeburgh and elsewhere.
Knussen's Study for 'Metamorphosis' for solo bassoon followed, with Ursula Leveaux. Originally written in 1972 and revised in 2018, it's Knussen in middle age looking back on early work. Though it's a "study", it feels like a whole, unified piece. It's also a good partner for Birtwistle's Duet, since the bassoon seems to be duetting itself, playfully, but with purpose.
Seven years ago, the Nash Ensemble premiered Birtwistle's Fantasia upon all the notes. Despite the title, this has little to do with Henry Purcell's Fantazia upon one note. Birtwistle's Fantasia is another intricate puzzle. Initially, the two violins (Benjamin Nabarro and Michael Gurevich) dominate, with fierce chords, followed by flute and clarinet (Philippa Davies and Sarah Newbould) and viola and cello (Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel), the harp (Lucy Wakeford) serving as pivot and continuo. Intricately poised playing - maybe the Purcell connection operates on a deeper level. At times, the harp is beaten for percussive effect. More harp-as-leader in Elliott Carter's Mosaic (2004) for harp, flute, oboe, clarinet (Richard Hosford, string trio and double bass (Tom Goodman). Again, patterns of cells multiplying and developing.
The Nash Ensemble were joined by Claire Booth for Birtwistle's Three Songs from the Holy Forest (2016-7). This has connections with Birtwistle's Moth Requiem (2013) a mysterious piece for chamber ensemble and small group of female voices which chant the Latin names of moths. Like the Moth Requiem, these three songs soar, float, and suddenly dart in new directions: very much like the movement of a moth. The texts here, to poems by Robin Blaser, are more extensive. The vocal line is more defined too, though it swoops and hovers in short phrases, Booth's voice plangent and almost abstract : singer as wind instrument. An alto flute replicates and extends the vocal line : two "voices" enclosed in the ensemble, like the moth Blaser envisaged, trapped inside a piano, its wings making the piano strings vibrate. Birtwistle wrote his own poems for Songs by Myself (1984). The haiku-like nature of the texts fit well with the enigmatic minimalism of the orchestration. Booth's voice moves : at once languid and melancholy, beautifully captured by the sounds of the vibraphone (Richard Benjafield).
"If anything", Philip Langridge told me in 2008,"Birtwistle’s music has become more impressive with time. He writes mathematically, in the way Bach writes mathematically, but with great emotion. To sing Birtwistle, you have to understand the ‘maths’ first, to get the figures right, to get the intervals right". So to Birtwistle's The Woman and the Hare, another Nash Ensemble classic, to poems by Stephen Harsent. The Woman and the Hare are ancient symbols. Whatever their meaning, they connect to mysteries : Moonlight, wildness, the subconscious. Typical Birtwistle territory. Here the singer's strange, curving lines are shadowed by a reciter (Simone Leona Hueber). Yet spoken words, intoned at a clipped pace suggesting tension, not meant to elucidate : they serve as counterpoint to the singer's keening, flowing lines and ethereal pitch. Duality, again. The ensemble sussurates around them, silvery tones, rustlings, low rumbles, sounds that might evoke sudden frantic movement, even a sense of danger. Something happens : we do not know, but we're hypnotised by the singer's gravity-defying legato. Is the hare consumed ? "Her flesh falls from the bone" says the reciter. But when Booth sings, the hare has the last word. "Look with new eyes /everything in place/ lush landscape.... moonrise". Transformational.