Saturday, July 13, 2002


Refrains and Choruses: Deux-Elles DXL1019

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.

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