Notes and Editorial Reviews
Night’s Black Bird. The Shadow of Night. The Cry of Anubis
Ryan Wigglesworth, cond; Hallé O
NMC 156 (55:58)
Iconoclast Harrison Birtwistle, for more than four decades one of Great Britain’s most significant and thought-provoking composers, has frequently explored the nature of time and existence, and its expression in myth, with music of great visceral intensity. His opera
(2008), with its wrenching articulation of
alienation and loss, is but the latest example of this. In a review of the DVD release of that opera (
32:6), I commented on the evolution in style one hears when comparing his newer works with older ones. From the ritual austerity of
(1965) and of the groundbreaking opera
The Mask of Orpheus
(1973–75 and 1981–84) has morphed a complex and open-ended formal structure that often reads as dramatic arc. The temporal dislocations of
The Mask of Orpheus
and the later opera
—born of a structural technique that explores events, musical and textual, from a variety of time perspectives without regard for linear continuity—have gradually given way to more straightforward narrative within the context of the composer’s musical vortices. While conductor and frequent collaborator Ryan Wigglesworth is at pains in his program note to deny any “late-period mellowing” and declares that the music is still “uncompromising,” he acknowledges a greater willingness by the composer to be more direct and more subtle in his expression. Much as I admire the great scores of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—and they have never been as intractable as some would assert—these newer works are no less powerful or rewarding for being easier to approach. The differences are often modest but telling. In truth, these latest of the handful of works for large orchestra have an obvious kinship to the first,
The Triumph of Time
(1972). In that work, though, the prodigious formalistic innovations of the work, functionally a study for the Orpheus opera to follow, hold the listener at arm’s length despite the death-march character and the compelling strength of the ideas. These three orchestral scores do not. They draw the listener into the current of rich darkness and sensuous texturing that the composer has been mixing into his compositional palette over the years. Small changes, to these ears, pay huge emotional dividends.
As for the three works recorded here, there are dark doings, and music that expresses primal nocturnal fears more potently than any I can currently bring to mind. The earliest work is the last on the program.
The Cry of Anubis
(1994) is less a concerto than a concertante work with solo tuba and orchestra. It takes its character and basic material from the surrealist opera
The Second Mrs. Kong
in which the ancient Egyptian jackal-headed guardian and protector of the dead plays a significant role. It starts as funereally as
The Triumph of Time
, but is animated by bursts of energy from the soloist, in the persona of the god who ferries the dead to Osiris, and from the
Rite of Spring
-like rhythmic drive of the central section.
The sibling works
The Shadow of Night
Night’s Black Bird
(2004) are two different essays on the same theme, “a slow and reflective nocturne,” as the composer described the earlier work, “exploring the world of melancholy as understood and celebrated by Elizabethan poets and composers.” Inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s
and John Dowland’s song
In the Darkness Let Me Dwell
, the first work was intended to expand on the tectonic plate/orchestral layer analogy of
(1985–86), but instead came to express very different natural phenomena, replete with birdsong and eerie gusts of wind. A commission three years later allowed Birtwistle to reexamine the same sound world, with a different Dowland song,
Flow My Tears
, as stimulus. Half the length of the earlier work, it is like an imperfect memory of the first piece, going its own direction, but always clearly related to the original. Birtwistle, in keeping with his fascination with the mutability of time in music, asked that the newer work—the recollection—precede the first.
If I were going to recommend an introduction to Birtwistle’s work to a new listener, I believe I would now pick this CD. The scores are wonderfully evocative, and full of event to keep the new listener engaged while assimilating the language. The performances are beyond praise; the Hallé musicians—dare I single out the amazing trumpets?—playing these technically daunting works as if they were the most natural thing to master. Former LPO tuba player Owen Slade is simply amazing. The sound is both substantial and translucent, with huge impact where needed. One would expect no less of an Andrew Keener production. This is a first-class release of three essential contemporary works.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Works on This Recording
Night's Black Bird, for orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle
Written: 2004; United Kingdom
Length: 14 Minutes 10 Secs.
The Shadow of Night, for orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle
Written: 2001; United Kingdom
Length: 28 Minutes 21 Secs.
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