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A new recording from London's Royal Academy of Music pairs Stravinsky's Soldier's tale with music by Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s Canon ad honorem Igor Stravinsky and Harrison Birtwistle’s Chorale from a Toy Shop were both written in 1967, alongside ten other works from young composers, in honour of Stravinsky’s eighty-fifth birthday. Originally composed for an unaccompanied choir, the Canon ad hon. I.S. has been beautifully orchestrated by Oliver Knussen. The score of the arrangement includes an excerpt from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, making reference to the first four closely-knit lines of the canon which combine the four forms of the pitch pattern—prime, inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion—in one:
Apparuit rota una super terram habens quatuor facies.
Et aspectus rotarum et opus earum quasi visio maris.
Et una similitudo, et una similitudo ipsarum quatuor.
Et aspectus earum et opera quasi sit rota, sit rota in medio rotae.
Spiritus vitae erat in rotis.
(One wheel, having four faces, appeared upon the earth.
And the appearance of the wheels and their work was like the sight of the sea.
And there was one likeness between the one and the four of the same wheels.
And their appearance and their work were a wheel and, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
The breath of life was in the wheels.)
The material for these ‘four faces’ stems from a Maxwell Davies work of very different character dating from 1966, the fierce Revelation and Fall based on a poem by Georg Trakl. In the Canon, two broader lines are also incorporated. Knussen explains that the first, played here by unison harp and horn, is the ‘In nomine’ plainsong which appears in many of Maxwell Davies’s works from the early 1960s: for example, the opera Taverner, the two fantasias on Taverner’s In Nomine and the Seven In Nomine. The second, played here by trombone, spells out the so-called ‘death chord’ (two major thirds a major ninth apart), which appears in many of Maxwell Davies’s pieces from that period, notably as the last sound in Worldes Blis (1966-9). Knussen’s feeling is that the two ‘extra’ parts are added as a sort of signature, a ‘PMD fecit’.
Birtwistle’s two chorales are a further pair of miniature jewels in tribute to Stravinsky. There is an overall characteristic solemnity to these chorales, where the subtle use of tiny faster rhythms provides perhaps an elusive sense of play. Solemn chorales are often given important roles in Birtwistle’s work, appearing in The Mask of Orpheus (1986), Gawain (1991) and An Imaginary Landscape (1971). As Knussen explains, earlier versions of Chorale from a Toy Shop exist for wind and brass ensembles; and most notably a massive realization of it crowns the first big climax of The Triumph of Time (1972). The present versions are quite the opposite, being of extreme sensitivity and subtlety. The ‘toy shop’ in question presumably refers to the opera Punch and Judy, on which Birtwistle was working in 1967. Having these two new versions placed side by side demonstrates the immense subtlety and depth of Birtwistle’s approach, presenting within a tiny duration an inner world of complexity and simplicity, achieved through an ear exquisitely tuned to the relative perspectives at play. In this music the connection with Bach and Stravinsky is evident, but the composer’s timbral sensitivity to range, weight and harmonic spacing is inimitably his own.
The longest work on this album, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale, 1918), is also an object lesson in how extreme restrictions of means can spark powerful art. In the straitened circumstances of the First World War it was no doubt a canny move by the novelist C.F. Ramuz and conductor Ernest Ansermet to approach Stravinsky with the idea of creating a new theatrical work that would be sufficiently affordable and mobile to enable performances, but with no loss of dramatic potency in the process. The meagre forces of an instrumental septet and three spoken roles (together with one dancer) were pragmatic in a continent financially starved by war. But Stravinsky’s choice of instrumentation, along with the rhythmic character of much of the music, also owes much to his discovery of jazz at the time, with works such as Ragtime, and Piano-Rag-Music coming hot on the heels of L’Histoire.
Such ‘restrictions’ yielded a work that has an immense clarity and moving simplicity at times, and a sardonic wit at others, with some passages sounding as if an ensemble at least twice the size is playing. Both the fable-like narrative and its musical embodiment take on a hallucinatory quality, at once totally embedded in the wretched world and at the same time utterly removed from it. The work looks forwards and back. One can hear echoes of Stravinsky’s large-scale pre-war scores (such as The Rite of Spring) in the devilish time signature changes and in the folk influences on the melodies. But there’s also a taste of what was to come: the violin’s music strikingly anticipates parts of the Violin Concerto of 1931, and some of the work’s instrumental textures and gestures look forward, in their admirable economy, to even later works such as The Flood (1962) and Agon (1957).
Stravinsky’s Epitaphium was commissioned in 1959 after the death of Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, patron of the Donaueschinger Musiktage at which the composer had been an honoured guest in the previous two years. This tribute was one of a set of pieces composed in the prince’s memory: Pierre Boulez and Wolfgang Fortner also composed memorial works, and Boulez’s Tombeau was later to be incorporated into the final movement of his masterpiece Pli selon pli. Stravinsky likened Epitaphium to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. Although he began work on the piece purely ‘by ear’, he soon discovered the serial potential of the material, using various intervallic transformations as well as a tightly organized harmonic scheme incorporating hexachordal rotations. An antiphonal chorale-like miniature results, where complete statements of the tone row can be found in each contrasting ‘block’, creating a discourse between the veiled, reverberant depths of the harp and the ringing, plaintive duo of flute and clarinet.
The Double Canon of the same year shares material with Epitaphium, and with other works from his early serial period such as In memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). Originally working with a duet of flute and clarinet, Stravinsky developed the material into a piece for string quartet which proceeds in a thematically watertight fashion, each statement being a retrograde, a retrograde-inversion or a transposed version of the original theme, including its rhythmic pattern. Stravinsky did not typically transpose his tone rows at that time, but in this piece his use of transpositions creates a compellingly hybrid effect in which the music sounds somewhere between fugato and canon. Perhaps there is also a hint of Bach looking over Stravinsky’s shoulder, the opening four notes bearing an unmistakable similarity to the B-A-C-H motif.
Birtwistle’s Tombeau in memoriam Igor Stravinsky and Maxwell Davies’s Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky were commissioned by Tempo magazine in 1971 as part of a set akin to the collection of miniature tributes commissioned in memory of Debussy in 1918 (for which Stravinsky effectively wrote the final chorale of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments). The other contributors in 1971 were Berio, Lennox Berkeley, Blacher, Denisov, Maw, Tippett, Schnittke, Wood, Copland, Carter, Goehr, Lutyens, Milhaud, Sessions and Boulez, whose contribution was the first manifestation of … explosante-fixe ….
Both pieces were written for the combined instrumentation of Stravinsky’s Epitaphium and Double Canon, and both share compositional traits with those works while being wholly characteristic of their composers’ respective styles at the time. Birtwistle’s Tombeau bears a conspicuous gravestone-framed epigraph on the score:
Shall we all die?
We shall die all.
All die shall we
Die all we shall.
This palindromic inscription (reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Muß es sein? / Es muß sein!’) arguably provides the only programme note necessary for the piece. The music combines a sense of simplicity and complexity perhaps even more potently than in the Chorale for a Toy Shop. A tiny refrain (consisting of three harp chords which surround a central tutti ‘chorale-chord’, all marked ppp) appears six times in total, framing five melodic passages that swap in turn between clarinet and flute, and muted string quartet.
Maxwell Davies’s Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky is an enigmatic spiral puzzle-canon whose potential for perfection reaches out far beyond the confines of the brief duration of any of its realizations. A sense of serial technique meeting fragments of plainsong, so associated with the composer’s work, can be heard. It creates a world of rhythmic super-impositions and shifting colours that seem to develop towards a tranquil communal reflection, rather than a palimpsest of motivic transformations.
Robert Peate © 2017
No one on earth is better equipped than Olly to devise musical ‘narratives within narratives’ which can be enjoyed by anyone with an open mind and receptive ears. One immediately thinks of those uncannily successful juxtapositions of landmark twentieth-century works which he recorded on Deutsche Grammophon with the Cleveland Orchestra and London Sinfonietta. Selecting L’Histoire du soldat for a group of talented young musicians does not, in itself, take a great deal of imagination. But the fun began—taking our cue from the recent American tradition of casting composers in the speaking parts—with a reciprocal volley of absurd ideas as to whom the speaking parts would be allotted. With only some decorum restored, Olly mischievously suggested that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would make a terrific Devil, and I piped up with Sir Harrison Birtwistle as the Soldier.
It was mooted in a spirit of the impossible but soon graduated to the spirit of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’—alongside the clear understanding that Olly would have to do the asking. When I surveyed it with my institutional hat on, the idea of our three most distinguished composition professors working together with our students resonated well.
Harry’s response was a surprisingly positive ‘I’ll do it if he does it’, but Max’s was an equally surprising ‘no’. All is not lost, I thought. From the experience of asking him to write an opera for the Academy and The Juilliard School (Kommilitonen! in 2011), Max’s ‘no’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘no’. Harry’s response remained less unequivocal: ‘possibly’. But on past form, ‘possibly’ was also rather more promising than it appeared. The crucial matter of the Narrator was solved in a trice. Dame Harriet Walter had performed all the roles with her customary brilliance in an Academy concert performance at Kings Place with our friend Simon Wright conducting—and thankfully she was available, with no last-minute Hollywood invitation.
This project is tinged with more than a little sadness. Of course, Max eventually said ‘yes’ but, as his illness became ever more invasive in the weeks leading up to the sessions, it was not to be. Framing L’Histoire with Olly’s choice vignettes—including the wonderful gift of two new world premieres by Harry, written specially for the recording, and an exquisite arrangement of Max’s Canon ad honorem I.S. by Olly, intermixed with Stravinsky’s own late commemorative miniatures and those obscure but telling tributes to Stravinsky by Harry and Max published in a memorial issue of Tempo magazine—this recording is dedicated with heartfelt thanks to Max, a man who gave the Royal Academy of Music many years of compelling and committed service as teacher, inspirer and friend. How appropriate that the hovering mystery of the last note on this recording is a ‘tombeau’ from Max’s hand: in sadness and in appreciation of another, and returned by us to him with the same poignancy.
To take Max’s place, a new Devil was sought and discovered in a cherished luminary called George Benjamin. The Academy has enjoyed memorable concerts in recent times with George (notably, two remarkable side-by-sides with our students and the London Sinfonietta of his own music and Grisey’s Les Espaces acoustiques) and so another Academy friend joined the party. The recording sessions were a tour de force of cross-generational insight, surprise and uproariousness. I thank all those involved, not least the outstanding engineer Philip Hobbs and editor Julia Thomas. But most of all, my admiration is reserved for the students and their astonishing dedication and expertise.
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood © 2017