Sir Harrison Birtwistle's demeanour was characteristically humble in a pre-performance talk at the premiere of Neruda Madrigales, his setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda for chorus, woodwind, percussion, and strings. He told us how he had chanced upon a translation of Neruda's "Double Autumn", and, fired by the way the words were laid out like a column on the page, he'd decided to set them to music even before absorbing what they were about. His music would not so much follow the poem, as be "about" it, he explained.
But at the performance, as his voices and instruments built to their first massed blast, one remembered that behind the surface humility lay Napoleonic compositional arrogance. The doom-laden chord that suffused the auditorium set up echoes of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms: this was the music of monumental immobility, in elegiac mood.
The sopranos flew high, the basses very low; the briefly heard harp seemed dusky and sinister; occasional solo voices broke through the wall of sound. But even when they did, few words were intelligible: moreover, the alternation between instrumental settings and chorales promised in the programme-note was hard to discern. At just one point - when the text spoke of a tree being felled - music and words came together in a spasm of spectacular violence, but for the most part they formed an undifferentiated miasma.
The piece was most effective when the voices receded into the background and the instruments took over, playing those subtle textural games that are Birtwistle's speciality.
But Neruda's poem is a tour de force, in which ideas and images make their own marvellous music: delivered here as a prelude, first in English then in Spanish, it showed up Birtwistle's piece for the bombast it is. But as his music is routinely supported by promotional exegesis from friendly critics, the bandwagon will roll on. And he'll go on getting devoted performances, as here from the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers.
The other works in the concert rammed home the limitations of this piece. Each of Stravinsky's Russian Peasant Songs packed more punch in one minute than Birtwistle did in 25. And Monteverdi's searing "Zefiro Torno" reminded us what a real madrigal could do.
To be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow at 7.30pmReuse content