Birtwistle Games final concert, Westminster Abbey, London

3.00

The final concert in the comprehensive Birtwistle Games festival, which the South Bank Centre and related organisations have been coordinating for the composer's 70th birthday, exemplified several of his compositional preoccupations in its very programming.

The final concert in the comprehensive Birtwistle Games festival, which the South Bank Centre and related organisations have been coordinating for the composer's 70th birthday, exemplified several of his compositional preoccupations in its very programming.

The first half was characteristically symmetrical in plan, with three Latin motets from Birtwistle's 1998 opera, The Last Supper at its centre, sung by the BBC Singers under Stephen Layton. These were flanked by two groups of three Tudor anthems given by the choir of Westminster Abbey, directed by James O'Donnell, with the sequence framed, in turn by a pair of short, recent Birtwistle pieces for brass, sounded out by the Royal Academy of Music Brass Soloists conducted by James Watson.

The second half, by contrast, emulated Birtwistle's fondness for braiding disparate cycles of pieces by interspersing the five movements of Messiaen's 1950 organ sequence Messe de la Pentecôte, played by O'Donnell, with three movements from the Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus, by the 16th-century Pierre de Manchicourt, sung by the BBC Singers.

Did it work? In the first half, undoubtedly. From the flarings and chimings of Birtwistle's Sonance 2000, with its four antiphonally disposed brass groups ricocheting around the great spaces of Westminster Abbey, to the elegiac dying falls of his Tenebrae David from above the rood screen, the sequence held together. For, if Birtwistle's three Latin motets in the BBC Singers' cool rendition laid bare the skeletal counterpoint that underlies even his most luxuriant scores, they also wonderfully offset the flamboyance and plangency of the Tudor polyphony on either side.

With the choir of Westminster Abbey currently in superbly virile and integrated form under O'Donnell, this selection of six anthems almost comprised a concert in itself; ranging from the jubilant cut-and-thrust of Thomas Tye's "Omnes Gentes, Plaudite Manibus" to the haunting desolation of William Byrd's "Civitas Sancti Tui'. Yet it was Thomas Weelkes's poignantly halting "When David Heard" that comprised one of the evening's two high spots.

The other was O'Donnell's superb reading of Messiaen's extended organ cycle. If this half of the concert seemed less compelling, it was partly because, after the focus of the Abbey choir, the BBC Singers sounded a trifle generalised in Renaissance polyphony. And partly, also, because the Messiaen remains a tough nut to crack, containing some of his most uncompromisingly stark, angular and dissonant writing. Nonetheless, as we left the Abbey with the roaring tone-clusters of its final "Sortie" still rampaging through the mind's ear, it was easy enough to hear why Birtwistle had agreed to his series culminating, not in music of his own, but in these extraordinary sounds.

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