It was goods-in-the-window time for the House of Birtwistle at Kings Place. On our way down through the bowels of this temple to commerce and culture, we passed the premiere of a portrait exhibition by Adam Birtwistle, before arriving in the auditorium for a concert of pieces d’occasion by his father Sir Harrison, some to be played by the musicians for whom they were composed.
The linchpin was Sir Harry’s pianist-of-choice Nicolas Hodges, who began with ‘Saraband: The Kings Farewell’, in which harmonic and rhythmic games are played with the basic pattern of that dance. The piece was short and skeletal, with the merest hint of lyricism, but Hodges’ fastidious voicing of the hands’ contrasting textures was a pleasure in itself.
Then he played ‘Ostinato with Melody’. ‘Not a piece which speaks loudly, but it has a lot to say,’ was his comment in the programme, and the pared-down melody over a wandering bass did indeed have an austere eloquence as the two lines pursued their parallel but only occasionally synchronised courses.
As it puttered to a halt the piece was oddly reminiscent of Ligeti’s celebrated ‘Poeme symphonique’ for a hundred ticking metronomes: whereas Ligeti had achieved his effect through pure randomness, Birtwistle’s closing effect was minutely calculated – yet both struck the innocent ear as essentially the same.
Then came ‘Orpheus Elegies’ in which selected fragments of Rilke’s sonnet-sequence were filtered through the combination of Melinda Maxwell’s oboe, Helen Tunstall’s harp, and Andrew Watts’s extraordinary countertenor voice.
The gnomic quality of the literary content was of a piece with the music, in which Watts’s burning intensity periodically lit up the silences in a determinedly desolate instrumental landscape. The mobile which started ringing in the wings may have left the musicians confused, but it raised a laugh from the auditorium, suggestive of relief that the work’s provocatively po-faced solemnity had been punctured.
The toccata-like ‘Gigue machine’ had been written to show off Hodges’ talents, and it did that (if nothing else), but with ‘The Axe Manual’ this remarkable pianist was joined by percussionist Christian Dierstein for a crazy collaboration in which Birtwistle’s orchestral talents were brilliantly bodied forth.
The collected works of Birtwistle fils suggest a painter imprisoned his own rigid format: with Birtwistle pere, one senses that beneath the parsimonious surface the ideas are still teeming.