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Virgil between the muses Clio and Melpomene [Source: Wikipedia]
02 Jun 2014

Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral

A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Virgil between the muses Clio and Melpomene [Source: Wikipedia]


To have two, plus three associated concerts, all at the same venue, is something very special indeed. The Barbican has certainly done the composer proud with its ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series. Would that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell were regularly so honoured; the contrast with the absurd overkill of last year’s Britten anniversary is instructive. At any rate, Yan Tan Tethera, written in 1983-4, first performed in 1986, and very rarely heard since — might Channel 4 make available its television broadcast? — shone both on its account and for the fuller sense it offered of Birtwistle’s musico-dramatic development.

To a libretto by Tony Harrison — any chance of seeing and hearing their Oresteia, someone? — this may perhaps seem more conventionally a chamber opera than Birtwistle’s earlier music-theatre pieces. And yet, listen more closely, and this tale of North and South, of shepherds counting sheep, of a malevolent piper, becomes more complex. There is a linear story, yes. Alan, the good, northern shepherd, who adheres to the old counting system, ‘yan, tan, tethera, …’ is drawn into the great hill — a precursor to Benjamin’s ‘little hill’? — by the piper and Caleb seems about to triumph, but the tables are turned. A modern, yet timeless, folk-like version of Virgil’s first Eclogue, Alan and Caleb the new Meliboeus and Tityrus, is far, however, from the whole, or perhaps better the only, story. The interaction, and at times apparent lack of it, between Harrison’s words and Birtwistle’s score are at least as much the story.

We are, as it were, in a ‘secret theatre’ once again. The ‘mechanics’ of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ tell of a story perhaps deeper than Virgil, even than Theocritus. Counting itself is both external and internal drama, which repeats, is broken, is reconstructed, yet is never the same. The choral sheep are counted and ultimately they too count. Birtwistle’s division of the ensemble into groups is part of that story, so is the journey towards unison, but, as Paul Griffiths noted in the final line of his helpful programme synopsis: ‘Alan leads his family and flock: Everyone is counting, eventually including Caleb underground, as the musical machinery moves on, now set aright.’ Who knows, however, whether the different perspectives, different pulses, different landscapes, different soundworlds we have passed through, will reassert themselves once again? Interestingly, and tellingly, Birtwistle (quoted in Michael Hall’s book on the composer, likened the structuring of his response to the libretto to that of Stravinsky to Auden. Yan Tan Tethera

… has things I’ve never done before and I’m really quite excited about it. Did you know that it was Stravinsky who divided Auden’s text for The Rake’s Progress into recitatives and arias? Auden wrote his libretto without the divisions. Well, I’m imposing something on Tony Harrison’s libretto. Had I asked Tony to provide it for me, it wouldn’t have worked; the result would be too formal in the wrong sense, too predictable.

As so often with this composer, anything but a Stravinsky epigone — there have been more than enough of those — but rather a true successor, the musical drama has a good deal of inspiration, conscious or otherwise, in his great predecessor. As Jonathan Cross has noted, the very notion of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ is rooted in ‘the imaginary song of a mechanical bird,’ just like Stravinsky’s Nightingale. The opposition between North and South, country and the town that encroaches upon it, above all natural and mechanical, may perhaps prove a further kinship between the two composers.

If at first, then, I was a little disappointed by the necessarily basic nature of John Lloyd Davies’s ‘concert hall staging’, I realised after the event that the concentration necessity had thrown upon the music had very much its own ‘dramatic’ virtues too, enabling me to experience and indeed to conceptualise crucial oppositions in a work I had never heard before. For that, of course, a great deal of praise must be accorded the excellent performances. Baldur Brönnimann’s leadership of the equally fine Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices was assured and (mechanically) expressive throughout. String glissandi — are they echoes of Tippett perhaps? — embodying, to quote David Beard, ‘both Alan’s subjective expression and the representative pastoral anecdote’ evoke both human acts and, perhaps still more so, that of the landscape, as ever with Birtwistle a potent force indeed. Such was undoubtedly apparent even from this, my first acquaintance with the work. Likewise the distinction between the almost conventionally haunting piper’s melody — still lodged in my memory — and the dramatic mechanisms surrounding it. The scintillating brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia’s response to the score was not the least of the evening’s revelations.

Roderick Williams’s Alan and Omar Ebrahim’s Caleb — extraordinary to think he appeared also in the premiere — led a fine cast, all attentive to words, music, and disjuncture. William’s naïve, northern sincerity — flat vowels and all, though sometimes they came and went — contrasted just as it should with Ebrahim’s ‘southern’ malevolence. Claire Booth offered a typically fine performance as Alan’s wife, Hannah, beautiful of tone, dignified and assured of purpose. Daniel Norman’s Piper or Bad’Un, and four boys from Tiffin School, Kingston, all made their mark very well too. Above all, this was a splendid ensemble performance. Now, may we hope for a fully staged version, in which dramatic oppositions receive some degree of visualisation from an aurally alert director?

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Alan: Roderick Williams; Caleb Raven: Omar Ebrahim; Hannah: Claire Booth; Piper/Bad’Un: Daniel Norman; Jack: Ben Knight; Dick: Benjamin Clegg; Davie: Joe Gooding; Rob: Duncan Tarboton; John Lloyd Davies (director, design, lighting). Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Dougan)/Britten Sinfonia/Baldur Brönnimann (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Thursday 29 May 2014.

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