Music: Classical: Music on CD

BIRTWISTLE: The Mask of Orpheus

Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis

(NMC D050)

If you believe the anti-Birtwistle lobby, a recording of The Mask of Orpheus should show it up for the musically empty thing it is. Strip away the dense, often perplexingly multi-layerd stage activity and the mystique is gone, the score is revealed as meaningless sound and fury. I confess: even as one of those who was blown away by ENO's 1986 stage premiere, I had my doubts. Could the music hold the attention without the action?

The answer is yes. In fact, I was surprised at how quickly each of the three substantial acts seemed to run its course. Even the purely electronic dances (accompanying the miniature "Passing Cloud" and "Allegorical Flower" ballet sequences) didn't stretch patience too far.

Act 2 - Orpheus' ultimately futile descent into Nightmare/ Hades to rescue Euridice - is more or less musically self-sufficient, an immense elemental crescendo followed by desolation and catastrophe (Orpheus' suicide). But Acts 1 and 3 are full of remarkable things: the tortured birth of music, speech and poetry at the beginning; the sacrifice of Orpheus (another version of the myth!) before the end; and the strange, primal dreamscape of the final pages - electronic sounds that vaguely recall but entirely transcend moody New Ageism.

In such a huge cast of singers and players, it's hard to pick out individuals for praise. But Jon Garrison as Orpheus The Man (as opposed to Orpheus The Myth) sings, yells, gabbles and stammers magnificently. Marie Angel's appropriately titled "First Hysterical Aria" as the Oracle of the Dead pierces and fixes itself in the memory.

Contributions from the BBC Singers and the winds, brass and percussion of the BBC Symphony Orchestra are predictably strong and conductor Andrew Davis (with assistant Martyn Brabbins) holds it together as if he knows it intimately. Recording and presentation are excellent too, though be prepared to do some serious homework on the text before sitting down to follow it with the music.

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<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
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