New Birtwistle releases are always special. Having lived in London in the 1970s and 80s, I had the privilege of being able to attend many of the premières of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s works. At the time it was gradually becoming apparent that he was not just another of the burgeoning group of British Modernists, but a very distinctive, original, and in some ways atavistic composer, with a penchant for ritualised, monolithic textures—that is, when he wasn’t writing pulverising whirlwinds like Silbury Air. A feature of his music, now as then, was a gift for atmospheric and memorable titles, like …Agm..., Endless Parade, Tragœdia, or Exody. By the early ‘90s, almost all of Birtwistle’s moderate- to large-sized output had been recorded, but for a long while thereafter no more of his grander music appeared commercially and those of us separated by distance from live performances could only wonder what had followed such vast, glacial, works as the Triumph of Time, Melancholia I or the Earth Dances. Now, with this excellent CD from the indomitable NMC label, we can begin to find out.
The opening work, Night’s Black Bird, with its slow sustained string writing and single unbroken formal arch, has an affinity with Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, and the Unanswered Question. But where Ives gazes admiringly on a beneficent firmament, Birtwistle broods menacingly as only he can, with piercing birdsong on the piccolo reinforcing the music’s impression of nocturnal threat. The Shadow of Night, despite following Night’s Black Bird on the CD, was written first, and shares many of the latter’s features, but writ much larger and more mysteriously—it is more than twice as long. The concise, fierce gestures of Night’s Black Bird are presented in the earlier work as an organically-evolving fabric of far greater expansiveness, allowing the music a much broader expressivity and rhetorical range. Heard second, one is struck by how much more space there is in the earlier piece, but it is also proportionately more leisurely in its unfolding—perhaps Birtwistle wished, after writing The Shadow of Night to revisit the material in much closer-focus, to condense it into a single imperious paragraph without the gestural distractions. Taken together, these are two of the most awe-inspiring orchestral works of our times, and easily the equal of his earlier scores.
Third on the CD, the Cry of Anubis is quite another matter. Tuba concertos tend to be regarded with a certain tolerant humour in expectation of joyous pachydermic gallumphing. Not so here. After the nocturnal birds, the jackal-headed god Anubis stalks our stereos in the persona of the tuba soloist; from the outset the music has an agitated fidgetiness entirely absent from the Night pieces, with the tuba prowling threateningly beneath. Although Birtwistle winds the music up, it never quite explodes; at the finish we are left wrung out but unrequited.
The performances, from the Hallè, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, are lovingly sculpted and powerfully convincing—Owen Slade plays a marvellously sinister Anubis/tuba. I have heard many works that inhabit similarly expansive Sibelian landscapes, from Dufourt’s Surgir, to Enescu’s Vox Maris, but few radiate the absolute and enduring greatness of Birtwistle’s extraordinary œuvre. I would not be at all surprised if future generations single him out as the preeminent British composer of the last sixty years—that is already my opinion. Enough to make this my CD of the year, unquestionably.