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Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The Nash Ensemble’s annual contemporary music showcase focused on the work of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a composer with whom the group has enjoyed a long and close association. Three of the six works by Birtwistle performed here were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, as was Elliott Carter’s Mosaic which, alongside Oliver Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon, completed a programme was intimate and intricate, somehow both elusive in spirit and richly communicative.

Nash Inventions: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claire Booth

Photo credit: Sven Arnstein

 

Subtlety and intangibility - an almost precarious delicacy - characterised Birtwistle’s Three Songs from The Holy Forest, settings of texts, ‘moth poems’, by the American poet Robin Blaser. Soprano Claire Booth gave the British premiere of the work at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2018, a performance that was conducted by the late Oliver Knussen to whom the final song, and indeed the whole concert, was dedicated. In this first London performance, Booth and the Nash ensemble captured the ‘real-but-not-real’ evasiveness and of both the poetry and music. Blaser’s long sequence of ‘moth poems’ began when, one day in 1962, he heard an eerie sound emanating from the baby grand piano in his apartment, as if the instrument was playing itself. Lifting the lid, he discovered the source of the sound - a moth trapped in the piano strings. The first poem is entitled ‘The Literalist’, alluding to the ‘reality’ of the event that inspired the poem:

the moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings
brush the wired interior
of that machine

But, as the moth’s frightened wings do play on, in the poet’s words and in Birtwistle’s music, the tangible becomes diffused, then dissolved: something from the mundane world is transformed into the magical, transcending time and place. Listening to Birtwistle’s fragile, wispy, ghostly music the words of William Carlos Williams came to mind: ‘Only the imagination is real.’

As Booth’s smooth but dusky soprano interweaved with Philippa Davies’ alto flute meanderings, it was hard to tell where voice ended and instrument began. Instrumental and vocal swoops, slides, chimes and low rustlings beautifully conjured the mysterious music of an air ringing with hammered sound. The precise, sensitive economy of Stefan Asbury’s conducting and Booth’s own unwavering poise ensured that shadowy world had a strange presence, though the music scarcely rose above a half-whisper. Paradoxically, as we were invited to enter a private world, so too were we offered a sense of nature’s infinite expansiveness.

Birtwistle wrote his own texts for Songs by Myself (1984). The oxymoronic tensions of the brief first fragment, ‘O light set a flame in amber, and freeze/the rose’s pulse’, were embodied by the way percussive chimes challenged the soothing calm established initially by the strings. There is a disturbing ‘hidden’ energy in both text and music, which occasionally bursts forth, and Booth’s soprano was laser-precise as it leapt and turned. This latent force pushes the songs forward, despite the frequent imagery of coldness and listlessness, and as she sang of ‘the fretting pulse of yesterday’s tomorrow’, the open vocal sound seemed to carry into the fourth song, whose fragmented visions were evoked by the oboe’s fantastical dancing above and around a low ostinato pedal. As in the Three Songs from The Holy Forest, Birtwistle often treats the voice as another ‘instrument’ and I found myself having to listen in a new way - not seeking significance or specificity in a correspondence between word and vocal gesture, but submitting to the aural glossiness of Booth’s mellifluous vocal line which glided almost neutrally through chains of words. At other times, however, Birtwistle does ‘paint’ individual words, often supporting such gestures with strongly characterised instrumental motifs, and the lucidity of the Nash Ensemble’s playing was enchanting.

Harrison-Birtwistle-c-S-Harsent-4.jpgSir Harrison Birtwistle. Photo credit: Simon Harsent.

A third vocal work by Birtwistle, similarly enigmatic and opulent, closed the programme. The Woman and the Hare (1999) sets a poem by David Harsent - the librettist of Birtwistle’s operas, Gawain, The Minotaur, The Cure and The Corridor. In mythology and folklore, the hare is a protean symbol - a trickster, witch’s familiar, messenger, goddess among other manifestations - associated with the moon, fertility, sacrifice by fire, and the very elixir of life. Harsent’s poem tells of a ritualistic chase, and is replete with natural imagery, sensuous and sensual. The text is shared between soprano and speaker, and as recitative and aria overlap, accompanied by Birtwistle’s preciously crafted instrumental graphics, which at times erupt with surprising violence, we move again into a world beyond verbal articulation. I confess that I began to find the unrelieved ‘glassiness’ of the vocal line and the sheer elusiveness of the whole almost overwhelming, my senses overload with impressions and intimations. This is music of, in equal measure, visceral power and moonshine mystery to which the listener must submit, and I found myself resisting!

Fortunately, the remainder of the programme provided the diversity I desired. Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon on all the notes (2011) and Elliot Carter’s Mosaic (2004) are gloriously intricate explorations of musical patterns and possibilities, and the Nash Ensemble opened up their inner workings to their audience conjuring a spirit of revelation and excitement in Fantasia, and painting with coloristic precision in Mosaic. Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon (1972, rev. 2018) - preparation for a larger, uncompleted Kafka-related project - was played with terrific agility and gloriously rich tone by Ursula Leveaux. Best of all was a new work by Birtwistle, the Duet for Eight Strings for viola and cello, whose searching lines and exploratory textures and harmonies were exquisitely delineated by Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel. In conversation with Tom Service, Birtwistle described the work as “a string quartet for two players”, placing his hands together in a steeple and indicating the intertwining of musical ideas, before brusquely brushing his arms aside, impatient with words when it is the music itself which does the talking. The players engaged in careful conversations and reflections at the start, feeling their way through the double-stopped chords, seeking out new sounds and harmonies. Then, the interplay changed character, in what Birtwistle describes as ‘“hocket” passages of rhythmically interlocking interchanges’ (the hocket being a medieval musical practice whereby a single melody is shared between two voices which alternate and fill in the gaps in each other’s lines). The gradual intensification erupted with surging drama before disappearing into a stratospheric nothingness at the close.

Claire Seymour

Nash Inventions : Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Nash Ensemble: Stefan Asbury (conductor), Claire Booth (soprano), Simone Leona Hueber (reciter), Ian Brown (piano/celeste), Benjamin Nabarro/Michael Gurevich (violin), Lawrence Power/Scott Dickinson (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Tom Goodman (double bass), Philippa Davies/Sarah Newbold (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Lucy Wakeford (harp), Richard Benjafield (percussion).

Sir Harrison Birtwistle - Fantasia upon all the notes for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet; Elliott Carter - Mosaic for harp, flute, oboe, clarinet, string trio and double bass; Birtwistle - Three Songs from The Holy Forest for soprano and ensemble (London premiere), Songs by Myself for soprano and ensemble, Duet for Eight Strings for viola and cello (word premiere); Oliver Knussen - Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon (UK premiere); Birtwistle - The Woman and the Hare for soprano, reciter and ensemble.

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 12th April 2019.

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