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In 2014—the composer’s 80th year—Harrison Birtwistle remains one of the most popular voices in contemporary composition in the UK and beyond. This new collection of premiere recordings draws together recent commissions with older works to mark the occasion, with characteristically flawless performances from the BBC Singers under Nicholas Kok. They are joined by The Nash Ensemble and baritone Roderick Williams.
All of this gives his choral music a less ‘prehistoric’ slant than much of his instrumental and dramatic work, but Birtwistle is not one of those composers whose choral music seems to stand entirely separate from the rest of their output. Recognisably Birtwistlian concerns are present throughout this disc, and recognisably Birtwistlian sounds, too—particularly in the accompaniments, with their avoidance of bowed string instruments and concomitant focus on woodwinds, harp and percussion. Furthermore, all but the two shortest works here relate in some way to Birtwistle’s operas, either sharing their subject matter or setting words by one of their librettists. Birtwistle has tended, particularly in the last twenty years or so, to work repeatedly with certain favoured writers, and the two major recent works which frame this programme both use texts by writers with whom he had already collaborated on an opera. In the case of The Moth Requiem, as we shall see, it was to an earlier poem by that writer that he turned, whereas for The Ring Dance of the Nazarene—as is his more usual practice—he requested a new text from David Harsent, who had been the librettist for Birtwistle’s 1991 opera Gawain and who had also provided the text for The Woman and the Hare, for reciter and small ensemble. More recently the two have collaborated again on a further opera, The Minotaur, and a smaller dramatic work, The Corridor, and in 2012 Harsent provided the poems for Birtwistle’s first voice-and-piano song cycle, Songs from the Same Earth.
Like Holst in The Hymn of Jesus, Birtwistle turns for his subject matter to a gospel episode connected with the Last Supper but described only in the apocryphal Acts of John, a collection of texts suppressed by the Church for carrying traces of the docetic belief that Christ’s human form was illusory (‘We wanted to see the print of his foot’, as Harsent puts it: ‘if it showed on the ground …’). The central role of dance in this episode was presumably also problematic for the Church as it became more equivocal about the role of dance in worship (although dance seems to have featured in paraliturgical practice well into medieval times). But the mystical association between a circular dance and themes of eternity and resurrection is clear enough, and Harsent’s text frames them for Birtwistle within a characteristically ritualised structure of call and response, verbal echoes, and longer, aria-like statements. ‘The Nazarene’, of course, is Christ, who is sometimes represented by a baritone soloist, although at other times his words are taken over by the choir, which thus conveys at different times the words of Jesus and of the disciples, as well as fulfilling a more conventionally choric role. The overall manner of the setting, with individual wind instruments occasionally emerging from the accompanying sextet in obbligato fashion, suggests a Baroque inspiration, while an intriguing additional contribution is the sound of an Iranian drum (perhaps itself a symbol for Christ as dancer?) which is present throughout much of the work as a kind of percussion continuo.
This was not in fact Birtwistle’s first engagement with the story of the Last Supper. Four years earlier his opera on the subject, to a libretto by the Canadian poet Robin Blaser, had departed from Biblical orthodoxy in a different way, using a female character called Ghost to mediate between the historical setting and our present day and to question the story’s contemporary meaning. The Three Latin Motets were composed for that opera, although they function within it not as part of the drama but as interludes, accompanying three ‘Visions’—still tableaux that in the opera’s first Glyndebourne production were staged as reconstructions of paintings by Zurbarán. Scored for a six-part a cappella choir (three voices per part) which in the first motet is further subdivided into shifting combinations of single and paired voices, they were further separated from the action by being pre-recorded (there are no male voices in the opera’s on-stage chorus). Their texts, too, are separate, not part of Blaser’s libretto but drawn from a fourteenth-century prayer and from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas: canonical Latin texts, then, all set for example by Palestrina, and treated by Birtwistle in a style which if not strictly polyphonic seems designed to evoke the aura of Renaissance sacred music. As placed in the opera, they trace the story of Christ’s Passion in reverse, beginning with a prayer to the crucified Christ and moving through the Stations of the Cross to the Last Supper itself, the night of Christ’s betrayal (when the action of the opera also ends).
If the idea of treating such a familiar story as the Last Supper (and, within such a retelling, of treading in the footsteps of a composer like Palestrina or Victoria) appealed to Birtwistle’s interest in placing familiar objects in new contexts, a similar concern must have informed his selection of the middle English carol text ‘The faucon hath born my mak away’ in one of his earliest works, Monody for Corpus Christi. Birtwistle returned to a sixteenth-century text—this time in Scots, the Wedderburn brothers’ famous depiction of Mary singing to the infant Jesus—in 2006 in a short work for divided sopranos: Lullaby was premiered by the trebles of Southwark Cathedral Choir in November of that year.
The earliest piece included here was completed on New Year’s Day 1965, fulfilling a commission—from the BBC Transcription Service of all places—for that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. A little confusingly perhaps, its text is not by the fifth-century poet Sedulius (known as Coelius Sedulius), author of the Christmas and Epiphany hymns ‘A solis ortis cardine’ and ‘Hostis Herodis impie’, whose long poem Carmen paschale was a five-volume narrative and commentary on episodes from the Gospels. Rather, Birtwistle’s text is a shorter poem by a ninth-century Irish grammarian also called Sedulius, now generally known as Sedulius Scotus to distinguish him from his earlier namesake. This Sedulius left Ireland for Liège, where he taught, wrote, and is believed to have been both scribe and translator of a dual-language Greek/Latin version of Paul’s Epistles whose manuscript survives today. The classical scholar and translator Helen Waddell (1889–1965) included the Easter poem in her influential collection Medieval Latin Lyrics, giving it the title Carmen Paschale (in a subconscious memory of the earlier Sedulius?), and Birtwistle must have found it there, although he sets it in the original Latin rather than the English translation that Waddell provides alongside. The style is metrically fluid but texturally simpler than in any of the other choral works on this disc, the choir remaining in four parts (SATB) throughout and alternating passages in unison rhythm with passages of gentle counterpoint led off by the women and men in turn. At the mention of a nightingale Birtwistle adds a new, instrumental line; marked ‘Free like a bird’, it is assigned in the published score to an organ, although Birtwistle now says that he intended a flute, and that is what is heard on this recording.
When Birtwistle came to choose a text for a major choral work commissioned by German radio and premiered by the John Alldis Choir in 1980, he turned again to Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics. In the 1970s he had begun work on his opera The Mask of Orpheus (finally completed in 1984), the apex of his interest in different, sometimes simultaneous, tellings of the same story. The choral work, On the Sheer Threshold of the Night, represents a further version again, setting Boethius’s poem on the subject—and thus in fact an early Christian era retelling. Birtwistle uses a complexly divided choir with just one singer on each part (four sopranos, four altos, four tenors and four basses), but to very different effect from in ‘O bone Jesu’, assigning to one singer in each vocal range a dramatic role. The first soprano is Eurydice, the fourth bass is Hades, and the fourth alto and first tenor sing together as a double-voiced Orpheus.
The work opens with Orpheus gently calling Eurydice by name, while the twelve ensemble voices start to sing Boethius’s poem, in Latin. Eurydice calls back to Orpheus in elaborate high melismas, but Hades calls him at the same time: the high soprano and the low bass simultaneously suggesting the two different directions in which Orpheus will be pulled. For a while Hades falls silent, and Orpheus and Eurydice call to each other across the choral textures of the poem; presently Hades re-joins them, and utters his warning to Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of Hell but not to look back at her until they have passed the gates. Not only is this the crux of all versions of the Orpheus myth, but the turning point—or peripeteia—is a key formal principle in Birtwistle’s works, even those not dealing directly with the myth. The work has a turning point of its own, with the four soloists absorbed into the choir for the central cry of ‘Quis legem …’ (‘Who makes the law for lovers? Love is his own greater law’). After this the discourse is split again, in texture but now in language too: the four soloists begin to narrate Orpheus’s awful mistake in Waddell’s English (‘On the sheer threshold of the night Orpheus saw Eurydice, looked, and destroyed her’) while the basses stammer out the same lines in Latin. Eurydice again sings out to Orpheus, but now desperate, beyond help, finally inaudible. Orpheus continues to repeat her name too, but in a separate space, unanswered, perhaps just as a memory rather than an address, while the choir voice the poem’s Latin moral, which then at the close is taken up by Hades in Waddell’s English paraphrase.
Loss of a different kind, and memory too, are the subject of the newest work included here, The Moth Requiem, for twelve female voices and an unusual—but again typically Birtwistlian—accompanying ensemble of alto flute and three harps. By now we might be beginning to recognise Birtwistlian fingerprints in the treatment of voices, too: here again each voice has a separate part, and only occasionally do they join (usually into four groups of three). The word-setting is also highly original, with the poem at the work’s centre split in hocket fashion between different lines so that each singer sustains one syllable as another commences the next; audibility of the text, as often in these works, is far from central to Birtwistle’s expressive intentions.
The poem, ‘A Literalist’, is the first from a sequence called The Moth Poem which Robin Blaser wrote in the early 1960s, and was inspired by mysterious sounds he heard in his house at night, which he finally traced to a moth caught inside the lid of his piano. If the poem is an elusive response to this stimulus, then Birtwistle’s instrumental writing, particularly at the opening of the work, is extraordinarily vivid and mimetic in its evocation of the sounds of the moth hitting the piano strings as it flies around. But as the title indicates, the work is a meditation on loss and a memorialising of what is lost, albeit one without Christian content and without anything of the traditional structure of a requiem Mass, and the greater part of the text is a simple incantation of the Latin names of various moth species, some of them still commonly found but others believed close to extinction—and coming here to stand, we might suspect, for the departed loved ones whose commemoration has been one of choral music’s chief concerns.
John Fallas © 2014