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Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...; Birtwistle: Gawain Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House / Elgar Howarth (Collins Classics 70412; two discs)
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Christmas at Camelot. The men hunger for sport, the women are baying for blood. And because Harrison Birtwistle is something of a child at heart, the first music we hear is heavy with the promise of derring- do. A tam-tam breathes fire, a tuba bellows, trombones (stopped down to rasping point) strike melodramatic attitudes. Birtwistle can take an almost naive delight in the explicitness of his imagery: the whinnying of horses, the clip-clopping of their hooves (temple-blocks as substitute for the coconut shells), the shriek of cold steel as Gawain decapitates the Green Knight. Gawain is orchestral opera, evolved - like so much of Birtwistle's music - from the blasted heaths, the rocky quarries, the winter badlands of pagan times.

This is music cast in chain-mail, great heaving profanities shot through with the exotic twang of cimbalom, the cold steel, the modernistic glare, of tuned percussion. Sensational, timeless, a blast from the past, a portent of the future - fortissimo. Act 1 of Gawain is all exclamation and declamation, David Harsent's high-flown text stressed out in vocal writing too tortuous, too overwrought (one pitch of intensity and one pitch only), too hectoring to be musically or dramatically meaningful - or, indeed, comprehensible. Like so much contemporary vocal writing, you can hear it coming - and going - with worrying predictability. Act 2 - the Journey - does, it's true, draw from Birtwistle a greater variety of mood, dynamic, and atmosphere - a kind of mystical mirror-image of the first act. The temptation scenes are endowed with softer vocal turns, Morgan Le Fay's enticing lullaby at last affording the intrepid Marie Angel the chance to scale down her vocal melismas to something other than a scream. And note the tiny Mahlerian phrase in the strings as Gawain first kisses Bertilak - an isolated example of what repose and lyric simplicity can achieve in a split-second of music.

Where did that come from? The measured stride of Gawain is impressive, the orchestral palette stunning, but in terms of musical and dramatic development ...? Despite the best efforts of this fine cast and Elgar Howarth's implacable and detailed direction (really, live performances don't come much more illuminating than this), Gawain is an oddly static experience. Emotionally, spiritually, I just don't feel I've been anywhere. ES

Forget Camelot. In Gawain King Arthur and his court are bored, listless, sensation hungry. Enter two disruptive influences: the sorceress Morgan Le Fay and the Green Knight, the latter supernaturally awe-inspiring (he manages to sing after he's been decapitated), but in the end only an instrument in Morgan's plan. Gawain accepts the Green Knight's bizarre challenge - your severed head for my severed head - and ultimately passes the test. But he returns with his illusions of heroism destroyed. Morgan hints at new possibilities ("Then with a single step your journey starts"), and yet her riddling is shadowy - literally. It's a bleak ending, overlaid with wintry imagery.

On CD Gawain left me feeling almost as wrung out as it did in the opera house. The voice / orchestra balance has been superbly engineered (now you can actually hear what the characters are singing), but the intensity is as unremitting as ever. Birtwistle piles craggy climax on craggy climax, stretches the voices to their limits, underlines his granitically dissonant harmonies with bass-brass-heavy scoring (three tubas!). There are more delicate moments, though, and the opulently inventive "Turning of the Seasons" tableau remains the high-point - what a pity Birtwistle felt he had to cut it.

To last the course you need to be in a fairly robust frame of mind - critics will no doubt say that it isn't only Gawain's heroism that is tested. And dramaturgical problems are more obvious now: sequential narrative rubs uncomfortably with ritualised repetition - will Gawain come to be seen as a transitional work in this respect? And yet the thing is prodigiously inventive, and it grips. All credit to the performers: Francois le Roux for his ardent, muscular Gawain, Marie Angel for making her stratospheric outbursts seem not exactly effortless, but at least not hazardous to the health. And John Tomlinson is on magnificent form yet again as the Green Knight - the usual eloquence and marvellous diction. Choral singing and orchestral playing are no less impressive, and production standards are as high as the performance and the music deserve. This is a courageous release, and perhaps also a timely one. SJ