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Birtwistle: Secret Theatre / Boulez, Ensemble Intercontemporain


Release Date: 03/12/1996 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 439910   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Harrison Birtwistle
Performer:  Christine Whittlesey
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

The soloists of the Ensemble InterContemporain clearly relish the twists and turns of Birtwistle's strange, dream-like Secret Theatre.

Why is there such fierce resistance to the music of Birtwistle? He does seem to be the composer many British music-lovers love to hate - and pet hates are the hardest of all to crack. Still, I can see why there could be difficulties for some. We in the West are used to approaching music harmonically, but no one in their right mind would call Birtwistle a great harmonist - one doesn't rush to the piano to try and work out his chords (as one might with, say, Lutoslawski, Knussen or Reich). Rhythm is much more important: repeated patterns that hold obsessively, change or decay, are
Read more superimposed so that they support or clash with one another, creating tensions and resolutions of their own - a parallel with Western harmonic thinking, but in effect quite different. Sonority is important too. In the earlier works, like Tragoedia, the up-down movements of the instrumental lines often feel more like changes in colour than significant intervals. I admit that in Tragoedia the results on occasions can be dry - the bare bones, with little flesh or sinew. But in this acutely focused performance a lot of it makes more immediate sense than it did in the old Decca Headline recording (12/67, long since deleted). Details are not only clearer, they mean more - the brief cello solo at the end of the "Antistrophe I" section (and track 4) is transformed from frenetic scrubbing to something weirdly eloquent. And 'weirdly eloquent' might do for Tragoedia as a whole in the performance. The actors in Birtwistle's tragedy may not be warmly, palpably human, but they are definitely enacting something - a drama for shadowy, skeletal forms, perhaps. Scenes like this might still take place on dark, deserted nights among the ruins of classical theatres.

The two shorter works, Five Distances and Three Settings of Celan, show how much Birtwistle has changed since then. The polyphony can be denser, more active, but the lines themselves have also become more expressive. Of course it helps to have a singer like Christine Whittlesey, who not only gets the notes but understands the shape of the lines and their relation to the words. There are some truly beautiful moments here - not least the hushed, intimate question "Are you asleep?" towards the end of the first song, "White and Light". But it's the final work, Secret Theatre, that leaves the strongest and most detailed impression. The first time I heard it I was struck — as many were - by its momentum, sustained through nearly half an hour. That sense of journeying, however strange or dream-like the territory, is just as striking here; what the new version brings is an added appreciation of the landscape itself - or to use an over-familiar phrase, I never knew there was so much in it. The soloists of the Ensemble InterContemporain clearly relish the twists and turns of Birtwistle's lines, whether foreground or background. As a result Secret Theatre feels even more alive here than in the London Sinfonietta recording, authoritative as that is. I also prefer these recordings - clarity, but not dryness, with colours and textures distinct but also nicely blended. As well as pleasing the admirers, this disc might also persuade one or two doubters - though I'd strongly advise them to go to Secret Theatre first.

-- Gramophone [9/1995]
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Works on This Recording

1.
Tragoedia by Harrison Birtwistle
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1965; England 
Date of Recording: 06/1993 
Venue:  IRCAM Studio/ESPRO, Paris, France 
Length: 20 Minutes 37 Secs. 
2.
Five Distances by Harrison Birtwistle
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Date of Recording: 06/1993 
Venue:  IRCAM Studio/ESPRO, Paris, France 
Length: 13 Minutes 47 Secs. 
3.
Three Settings of Celan by Harrison Birtwistle
Performer:  Christine Whittlesey (Soprano)
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
Date of Recording: 06/1993 
Venue:  IRCAM Studio/ESPRO, Paris, France 
Length: 13 Minutes 32 Secs. 
4.
Secret Theatre by Harrison Birtwistle
Conductor:  Pierre Boulez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; England 
Date of Recording: 06/1993 
Venue:  IRCAM Studio/ESPRO, Paris, France 
Length: 27 Minutes 47 Secs. 

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