The sound of universal time itself: Records: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson on excellent Birtwistle and disappointing Schumann

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The Independent Culture
BIRTWISTLE: The Triumph of Time. Gawain's Journey The Philharmonia / Elgar Howarth (Collins Classics 13872)

THE Birtwistle orchestra is like a harnessing of the elements, sonorities hewn from the rocks of ages. In The Triumph of Time - surely one of the very finest orchestral scores this century - the mechanism of time is a mighty dirge turned processional. The universal clock grinds on, its working parts turning and turning again on an axis of groaning percussion and baleful brass. It's the first rule of the universe in music: matter is created, recycled, but never destroyed - the perspectives change, the material doesn't.

A soprano saxophone and cor anglais are constants, the voices of lamentation and consolation, and for one extraordinary moment of stasis in flute and the stardust of tuned percussion, it's as if time can and does stand still. An illusion - the ravaging climax is inevitable. Beyond it, a string chorale carries us into the ether. It's a remarkable piece.

There's more where that came from on Gawain's Journey, though here the narrative fervently betrays its theatrical origins. It is what it is - an orchestral synthesis of Birtwistle's opera Gawain, more manufactured than evolved. Even so, it amounts to an eventful and sonically spectacular journey with Birtwistle - ever earthy, plain- spoken - unapologetically literal in his aural depiction of horses' hooves and flashing steel. Fantastic performances, recording to match. ES

AFTER the recent disappointment of Antiphonies, here's an encouraging reminder that Birtwistle has been producing outstanding music long enough to be allowed an occasional lapse. Nearly 20 years separate the opera paraphrase Gawain's Journey from The Triumph of Time, and while the sound- worlds are in some ways very different, the same granite-like individuality pervades both.

The Triumph of Time is ominous, louring and, on first hearing, agonisingly slow-moving. Gawain's Journey initially seems all convulsion and driving energy. Explore, and the perspective changes: Lady Hautdesert's oboe lullaby emerges as the lyrical heart of Gawain's Journey (Birtwistle's wild fioriture transfer suspiciously well from the solo voice), while in The Triumph of Time the saxophone's desperate climactic chant moves increasingly centre stage, and the slow processional seems to take less and less time to get there.

The performances are authoritative; they ought to be, since Elgar Howarth has several major Birtwistle premieres under his belt. I've heard The Triumph of Time's central climax played with more piercing intensity - in Pierre Boulez's old Argo recording, and in several concert performances by Howarth himself - but the total effect is what matters, and this version has all the cumulative power it needs. Gawain's Journey is thrilling, and like The Triumph of Time beautifully recorded. SJ

SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe.

Frauenliebe und -leben. Aus dem

Liederbuch eines Malers

Nathalie Stutzmann, Catherine


(BMG/RCA 09026 61187-2)

IT can be a bewitching sound. When Dichterliebe plumbs the depths of grief beyond consolation and Nathalie Stutzmann's noble contralto darkens with images of Cologne Cathedral on the Rhine, of unfathomable oceans and a coffin full of love and sorrow, the effect is almost unreal. The masculine timbre of this beautiful cycle suits her well; she sounds more 'inside' these songs than anything else on the disc. Maybe it's their concentration but even overworked devices like her 'glazed-over' pianissimi seem to mean more here.

Despite the characterful, almost startling sound of the voice it isn't a particularly versatile colour, it doesn't respond readily to the many-faceted shadings of the words. She sings with evident commitment and feeling, but the effect can be monochromatic. If only more of the words were as tellingly inflected as flustern ('whisper') in 'Susse Freund, du blickest' from Frauenliebe und -leben - there she truly captures the softness and tranquillity and palpitating excitement of the bridal bed.

Mixed fee1ings, then - though as 'the veil falls' at the close of Frauenliebe und -leben and the piano simply, sadly recaps the chordings of the opening song - better times past - any performance suddenly seems unutterably moving. ES

THERE's so much artistry here, not only in the songs (that goes without saying) but in Stutzmann's interpretations. The two great cycles are felt as cycles; at the same time she homes in on expressive details in a manner which suggests fine, intelligent preparation. Expressive manner, tonal shading, it all seems to grow naturally from the words (which she enunciates beautifully) and the music - and the accompaniments are more than adequate.

So why don't I warm to Stutzmann's singing? Is it that it's careful - that thought rather than depth of involvement is what comes across? Or is it the odd, tense quality in the voice that makes me draw back? 'Dark driving longing . . . love singing from the heart, . . . the heart rent asunder': I'm told about them well enough, but as for feeling them. . . SJ