Saturday, June 22, 2002


'Symbiosis’ (G.M. Recordings 007) is a collection of occasional instrumental pieces by Thomas Oboe Lee and Gunther Schuller. Lee’s ‘Mad Frog’ for oboe, bass clarinet and harp is especially diverting and intriguing. The Kronos Quartet give a strong performance of the same composer’s Third String Quartet, “Child of Uranus, Father of Zeus”. The Schuller contribution is the atmospheric chamber work for violin, percussion and piano from which the whole collection takes its name. American composed music continues to be a vibrant source of new delights often hidden from European ears. Schuller’s is a relatively well-known name, Lees less so. He is from China via Brazil and studied under Schuller and George Russell among others. If you like variety, colour and challenging a/tonality in your music you will not be disappointed. There are three one minute sound snatches at for those who want an aural clue.

On the prosaically entitled ‘Handel Arias’ (ABC Classics 472 151-2 ) acclaimed Australian tenor David Hobson sings exactly that: 17 songs from 12 operas, an oratorio and the ‘Ode for St Cecelia’ – the latter particularly beloved for me. I confess that I’ve only heard seven minutes of this fine collection, and that on a less than worthy sound system. Even so, Hobson’s voice shines through with the warmth, roundedness and clarity for which it is renowned. In fact I had better be complementary, since my friend Priscilla Abbott is a huge devotee of the man’s vocal chords. When I finally lay my hands on the CD itself I think I shall see (hear!) why. At the moment this seems to be an Australia-only release, but if I track it in the US or Europe I’ll add a note on this log. Still, this is the age of the credit card and online ordering. You can hear snatches at cdcollector. Irritatingly they refuse to let you leave their site, so you have to type in another URL. The best place to purchase would seem to be the ABC shop. Tajima’s Hobson page provides more artist links.


(1) Andrew Clements of The Guardian newspaper, commenting on the imminent end (in July 2002) of Bernard Haitink’s tenure as music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. He described the man as an undeniably great musician, but then went on to point out:

“The only unexpected work in his CV is Tippett’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’. For a conductor charged with shaping and driving forward the whole musical profile of this country’s most prestigious company, this has been a desperately narrow repertoire at atime when the horizons of opera companies and opera audiences have become wider than ever before. It also comes as a shock rather than a surprise to discover that during the 15 seasons that Haitink has been at the helm, there have been only two new operas premiered in the House – Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ and Goehr’s ‘Arianna’ – neither of them, it almost goes without saying, conducted by its music director. That is a record the Royal Opera should regard with considerable shame and embarrassment.”

Too right, but don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, check out Mark Antony Turnage’s fine ‘The Silver Tassie’ at English National Opera (the Coliseum).

(2) Aki Nawaz, founder of Fun’Da’Mental and Nation Records:

“Our philosophy with Nation Records was to give anyone – be it Asian Dub Foundation, Talvin Singh, Transglobal Underground, Jah Wobble – the freedom to express themselves. We don’t have immigration controls.. [but] radio stations won’t go near global fusion music.. Multicultural Britain? Islam messes up the band… But I don’t care. I won’t compromise my beliefs.”


A small selection on Amazon I have called Eclectic Guitars. For that is indeed what they are, in many contexts and across a number of (often boundary-defying) genres.


Birtwistle the surprise lyrical purist

Refrains and Choruses: Deux-Elles DXL1019, July 2001.

For the faint-hearted Harrison Birtwistle is a daunting prospect. In the interview with Colin Anderson that accompanies this fine recording he confesses, in a distinctly unapologetic way, that he does not begin to know how to write music 'for' an audience. Rather, (as I would put it) he writes out of his own intrinsic musical fascination; and in so doing invites the listener to accompany him on an adventure. As this collection amply illustrates, it is an adventure well worth joining.

'Refrains And Choruses' takes its title from Birtwistle's first acknowledged work (1957), a beguiling play on opposites and continuities. It is a collection of what he chooses to call 'occasional' rather than 'chamber' music. Perhaps the latter sounds too trivial or functional. More to the point, these compositions, though valuable in their own right, are not simply ends in themselves. Birtwistle frequently uses small ensemble pieces to explore ideas that crop up in, inform, or parallel more complex themes in orchestral or theatre works.

Among the goods on offer in this imaginatively organised compilation are several pieces for piano, including 'Hector's Dream' with its differing chordal patterns. This is about as near as we are ever likely to get to a 'beginner piece' from Birtwistle. The notes are possible, but the inner challenge is in the timing. Similarly, the flute 'Duet For Storab' in six short episodes has a disarmingly simple texture but is fiendishly difficult to perform. Two of its movements ('White Pastoral' and 'From The Church Of Lies') shock with their sweetness and lyricism. Those who stereotype Birtwistle as a monster of the inaccessible are confounded here.

It would of course be quite wrong to imply that Birtwistle in any way compromises his formal musical concerns in these pieces - even the most direct ones. But they are, nonetheless, a very profitable place to start for anyone seeking a way into his aural universe. Whether it is the hocketting on 'Hoquetus Petrus' or the intricate instrumental contrasts on 'Five Distances', there is a good deal to learn about Birtwistle's technique here. But there is also insight into his deep love of music as a means of expression and exploration.

For those already attracted to Birtwistle this material, excellently performed by the Galliard Ensemble and soloists, draws attention to some of the main building blocks of his work. For those who remain daunted or sceptical - but who are willing at least to try - it constitutes a more comprehensible (though no less profound) set of surfaces to contemplate. Thoroughly recommended for all concerned.

(c) Simon Barrow, 6 June 2002.

No comments: