tue 25/06/2024

Birtwistle 80th Birthday Concert, London Sinfonietta, Atherton, QEH review | reviews, news & interviews

Birtwistle 80th Birthday Concert, London Sinfonietta, Atherton, QEH review

Birtwistle 80th Birthday Concert, London Sinfonietta, Atherton, QEH review

Tribute showcases a master of both the miniature and the monumental

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: prickly but still clear-thinking at 80Hanya Chlala

Sir Harrison Birtwistle has never sought to make life easy for his audiences, nor for interviewers, often giving short shrift to both. His music is as uncompromising as his carefully curated public persona. But fortunately last night we were treated to more notes and less chat than the printed programme threatened.

In an awkward onstage exchange at the start, presenter Tom Service asked Birtwistle whether the first piece had a sense of danger about it. The answer: "I don’t know. I just wrote a piece of music". This bon mot, rewarded with a round of applause, is either refreshingly down to earth or frustratingly evasive – perhaps both – but thereafter, probably to everyone’s relief, the music was allowed to do the talking.

The programme was a survey of Birtwistle’s music for the London Sinfonietta over the last decade or so. Since its founding in 1969, Birtwistle has written over 20 pieces, of all shapes and sizes, for the ensemble. The journey through the concert was from small scale to large, and with a roughly reverse chronology.

Although their styles contrasted, both conductors had a sense of command and a real feeling for the music

There were three duets to start, two of them world premieres. The first duet had three players; a trumpet and E flat clarinet traded gestures and shared a chorale before being interrupted by a short, terminal intervention from a snare drum. The other duets were for violin and flute, and bass trombone and horn. They showed a relaxed Birtwistle not always evident in larger pieces, the pairs of instruments engaging in witty interplay, sometimes working in tandem, sometimes in competition.The duets also offered the opportunity to see Birtwistle’s writing under the microscope, as it were. Musical lines which, in a bigger piece, would become part of a dense tapestry, were allowed centre stage to be enjoyed in their naked state. There was much to enjoy in these miniatures, even if they were modest in scope.

Conductor David AthertonVirelai (2008), for the standard Sinfonietta line-up minus piano and percussion and conducted by David Atherton (pictured right), pointed up Birtwistle’s long-standing fascination with the procedures of very old music. In this case he takes a song by Chaucer’s contemporary Johannes Ciconia and gives it a wonky orchestration, scattering the lines around the ensemble, revelling in the strangeness of the sounds. Like the duets, Virelai is untypically approachable Birtwistle: the meatier fare was to follow.

In Broken Images, also from 2008, provides the overall title for the Birtwistle mini-festival at the Southbank this weekend. It comes from Robert Graves: "He is quick, thinking in clear images; / I am slow, thinking in broken images." Sir Harrison may be moving a bit slower these days, but his thinking is clearly still sharp, his dramatic sense undimmed, his invention relentless.

In Broken Images sets the sections of the orchestra, demarcated carefully on the stage, against each other in complex antiphony. In music inspired by Gabrieli, the brass are to the fore, and their playing was exceptionally good, notably trumpeter Alistair Mackie. The players of the Sinfonietta were augmented by the Manson Ensemble of the Royal Academy of Music. Their playing was equally sharp, with the percussionists Paul Stoneman and Oliver Butterworth rattling out precise xylophone lines.

The second half was made up of a single piece, the 40-minute Theseus Games, the oldest piece of the evening. Players from the large ensemble take turns stepping forward for moments of solo playing at the front of the stage. These sections were showcases for the extraordinary skills of the Sinfonietta players and, although it is invidious to mention particular players given the uniform excellence, I particularly enjoyed Mark van der Wiel’s athletic clarinet playing, and Jenny Brittlebank’s eloquent cor anglais.

Theseus Games is also notable for requiring two conductors, here the experienced David Atherton and the younger Geoffrey Paterson. The intricate choreography of the two, sometimes taking cues from each other, sometimes obliviously ploughing their own furrows, made for entertaining watching. Although their styles contrasted, both conductors had a sense of command and a real feeling for the music.

Theseus Games is held together by the golden thread of melody; the history of the London Sinfonietta is similarly braided by the thread of Birtwistle’s music, present in the ensemble’s DNA, and worthily celebrated in this concert.

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