Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Music (ECM New Series 2253)

Birtwistle Chamber Music

Harrison Birtwistle
Chamber Music

Lisa Batiashvili violin
Adrian Brendel cello
Till Fellner piano
Amy Freston soprano
Roderick Williams baritone
Recorded August 2011, Herkulessaal der Münchner Residenz
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Harrison Birtwistle has garnered continental attention as Britain’s leading living composer, despite (if not also because of) the occasional controversy, including a much-criticized broadcast of Panic, a work for alto saxophone and orchestra written for the Last Night of the Proms in 1995. If that work caused a stir, it wasn’t so much due to the music itself. Even the infamous riot provoked by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had less to do with sound than staging. It was a question of context and expectation. In a space typically occupied by Elgar and the like, it was jarring to be thrown into the deep end of modernism without a life preserver. One can approach a recital album, however, on one’s terms, treating it as would a scientist who both knows what to expect and expects the unknown.

In his liner notes for ECM’s first ever reckoning with Birtwistle, English composer and music critic Bayan Northcott stresses the cyclical, as opposed to the goal-directed, vision of the music selected here. Like Elliott Carter, to whom it is sometimes compared, Birtwistle’s music rides the edge of incomprehensibility, all while maintaining the exuberance of one who enjoys his craft. His chamber works in particular are non-confrontational, welcoming the listener by virtue of their genre-defying grammar and rhythmic impetuses. This puts no small demand on would-be performers, who in this instance carve likenesses of the scores as if they’d hewn the originals.

Any knee-jerk instinct to call this disc “fantastic” will be quickly doused by the Objectivist poetry of Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), whose biological realism and observational intelligence are upheld by Birtwistle’s analogic Three Settings. Scored for soprano and violoncello, these elicit flashes of avian anatomy, of the body as pendulum (and vice versa), of scavenging lives compressed into molecules of continuity. Amy Freston gives an airy yet tactile quality to the texts, tracing their flow in high-resolution detail, while cellist Adrian Brendel hops along a more fragmented path, the plural to Freston’s singular. This same combination closes the program in the Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker, where again the intertextuality of the verses finds kindred spirit in the writing. Freston meets the unenviable task of constant jumps in register with utmost precision, and in so doing highlights the symbiosis of sound and signal. This is particularly evident in the ecologically minded “My Life,” wherein she (poet or singer) pulls sentiments right out of the ground, clods of earth still clinging to every other branch and waiting to be notated before letting go. “Sleep’s Dream” is another beauty, its cello seesawing while the voice tears a childhood photograph so gradually that by the time its parents have been burned, it is too late to reverse the smoke.

Between these works, one first discovers the Trio for violin, violoncello, and piano. Characterized by an adroit cogency of part to whole, its every space has purpose. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Till Fellner make democratic use of volume and pitch, drawing a horizon line through a sky that is lit neither by sunrise nor sunset. Every color has its opposite, every action its reaction. Second, and more peaked than valleyed, is the enigmatically titled Bogenstrich—Meditations on a poem of Rilke for baritone, violoncello, and piano. The instrumentation is somewhat misleading, as Roderick Williams’s role serves to bookend the piece against skeletal pianism and ashen string. In the final “Liebes-Lied” especially, cello and voice become equal partners in their worlding. The connective tissue of cello-piano duets along the way grows into a self-sustaining ecosystem and shows Birtwistle at his colorful best.

This is chamber music in the truest sense: not simply because it is performed in one, but also because it builds another by virtue of an architecture made translucent by the opacity of the soul.

(To hear samples of this album, click here.)

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