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Harrison Birtwistle
18 Jun 2009

Aldeburgh Festival — New Buildings, New Birtwistle Operas

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s early opera, Punch and Judy, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968. Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out. Now Birtwistle is himself the pre-eminent British composer, whose work has long since become part of the Aldeburgh tradition. This year’s Festival opened with two Birtwistle premieres, The Corridor and Semper Dowland, simper dolens.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle : The Corridor, Semper Dowland, semper dolens

Mark Padmore (Orpheus), Elizabeth Atherton (Eurydice), Helka Kaski and Thom Rackett (dancers), Peter Gill (director), Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor). London Sinfonietta. 15th June, 2009, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England.


Like Britten himself, Birtwistle is fascinated by early English music. So his new music grows on ancient roots, much like the new buildings at Snape rising from the remains of granaries that occupied the site in Victorian times. The new Britten Studio is a minimalist structure, with open beams in the roof and rough hewn brick walls. Architecture as abstract art. It was a perfect setting for the austerity of Birtwistle’s two new works.

Semper Dowland, simper dolens takes its cue from John Dowland's Seven Teares figured in seven passionate Pavanes. To Birtwistle, the Dowland sequence is "unique in the history of music". The basic unit is a song Lacrimae, which is set in seven versions, with the same chord sequence, each only a slight variation on the former, so the whole flows endlessly like the tears in the text. "It's like making music into a three dimensional object", says Birtwistle, "like seeing something in different facets".

In a musical puzzle piece like this, simplicity is of the essence. Dowland played the lute and sang it himself to small audiences. Mark Padmore sings, accompanied by austere yet limpid harp, a lute writ large with deeper sonorities. At critical moments, low voiced murmurs from bass clarinet, viola and alto flute, then sudden lyrical flights on piccolo.

The Corridor is Birtwistle's latest exploration of the Orpheus myth. Again, it springs from a simple idea, a freeze frame focus on a single, fleeting moment in the saga, when Orpheus, leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, suddenly looks back. In an instant, he loses her and she's swept back into eternity. So Birtwistle makes the split second extend into a half hour meditation on past, present and future. He layers mood on mood, infinitely extending the moment, which once past cannot be retrieved. So don't expect a storyline or development. This is a different concept of time in music.

The text is by David Harsent, whose poetry is poignant because it's direct and seemingly simple. He wrote the libretto for Birtwistle's The Minotaur where the Minotaur's fierce exterior hides his innocent, childlike soul. An even better comparison with The Corridor is The Woman and the Hare, a 15 minute jewel Harsent and Birtwistle wrote some several years ago. Birtwistle has come a long way from Punch and Judy. His more introspective work is delicate and intricately constructed - like his fascination with clockwork and mazes.

Indeed, Harsent's text in The Corridor is particularly elegaic and beautiful, Birtwistle hardly has to "set" it as such, for the phrases and words flow melodically. Elizabeth Atherton's was nicely warm blooded and lusty, making her fate all the more distressing. You could "hear" the vibrant young woman who dies on her wedding day. I wasn't so sure about the film projections and dancing, though I can see why the spartan staging might need elaboration to keep an audience happy. London audiences will get a chance to see a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6th and 7th July.

But again, the best writing is for the male voice. As the poem goes:
"...there's only one word dark enough, one word as bleak, as tear the heart, a word to blacken bring to ruin all joy or gift or courage...."

Orpheus cannot bring himself to say the word. Padmore sings the name instead, Eurydice, over and over, each time differently, as if reluctant to lose hold of the moment.

Anne Ozorio

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