Performances of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's music have recently abounded, internationally as well as in Britain. So it makes you wonder whether Birtwistle Games, which opened at the Purcell Room with the concert here under review, was really the best way of celebrating the composer's 70th birthday.
Rather than mount nine evenings, consisting wholly or largely of Birtwistle's compositions - most of them over a two-week period which makes total immersion, even by complete anoraks, seem unlikely - would it not have served the composer better to have offered the same fare over a longer period? Or to have integrated it with other repertoire, and thereby further increased audiences?
Yet whatever the whys and wherefores of this, and despite the fact that it seemed distinctly odd to launch Birtwistle Games in the Purcell Room with an evening of fairly modest dimensions (without the composer even present) Endymion's concert immediately brought some of Birtwistle's finest music and set a high standard of performance. Following some mildly idiosyncratic arrangements of three Bach cantatas by him, two early works both came up sounding fresh and seminal.
Linoi, a lugubriously lyrical outpouring for basset clarinet and the plucked inside strings of the piano, was given with passion and superb control by Mark van de Weil and Iain Farrington. And Nenia: the death of Orpheus - that crucial, style-changing work for soprano, three clarinets, crotales and piano of 1970 that began the period culminating in Birtwistle's opera, The Mask of Orpheus - was sung by Claire Booth with finely focused attention to its evolving drama and wide-ranging vocal demands. Nenia and the Bach were conducted, rather impressively, by the American-based Kawai Shiu. His own Quartet Desire perhaps seemed more anonymous and incoherent in Birtwistle's shadow than it might have done in a somewhat different context.
That Orpheus obsession continues to shape Birtwistle's music right up to the present day, as was confirmed by the most powerful offering of the whole evening, 26 Orpheus Elegies, completed this year. Who else besides Birtwistle could make edge-of-the-seat listening for the better part of an hour out of 20 short pieces for oboe and harp (with occasional, curiously telling accompaniment from a ticking metronome), interleaved with six songs adding just a countertenor to this duo? No one else, in my experience.
The challenge of these difficult compositions, in particular the cruel demand set on the stamina of the oboist, were met with outstanding musicianship by players, Melinda Maxwell and Helen Tunstall. Their peerless performances were spoilt a little by the countertenor, Andrew Watts, who seemed to have only two dynamic levels, fairly loud and extremely loud; his German was poorly enunciated too. But this was compelling listening, all the same.
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