Modernist master's medieval delights
Published 24 November 2014
Harrison Birtwistle's 80th-birthday celebrations go on and on, the latest bout being a series of concerts, organised by Richard Causton, at King's College, Cambridge, in which Birtwistle's music was interlarded with the music of his peers, plus that of the medieval composers he has always level – as in the evensong at King's College chapel in which Birtwistle's austerely graceful motet Pange Lingua was juxtaposed with a Magnificat by Robert Fayrfax (1464–1521).
The concerts on the final day represented a rallying of Britain's new-music community in which works by two of its youngest members – Jae-Mon Lee and Patrick Brennan – shared programmes with new works by Causton and Alexander Goehr and some vintage Birtwistleana. And seldom are composers so well served as they were here, with the British pianist Nicolas Hodges, the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, and members of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – each a virtuoso – under the magisterial direction of Oliver Knussen.
Of the new works, the one which shone most brightly was Goehr's Between the Lines, suggesting its derivation from Schoenberg's Opus 9 with an allusiveness obliquely refracted through a glowing lyricism.
Published 16 November 2014
Amity wins over enmity in musical life […. ]
Such celebrations, fortunately, are not restricted to the departed. An equally luminous bunch of composers turned up to hear music by Harrison Birtwistle and others in a four-day festival, Secret Theatres, in Cambridge. The event was organised by Richard Causton, a university lecturer but first and foremost a composer who has admired Birtwistle for three of his four decades. To mark his older colleague’s 80th birthday, Causton gathered some of Birtwistle’s favourite musicians, such as the Arditti Quartet and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and programmed music from the medieval period to the present with – honouring Birtwistle’s taste – not too much in between.
At a lunchtime concert in King’s College Chapel, the pianist Nicolas Hodges and cellist Anssi Karttunen played duo and solo works, anchored around three “songs without words” by Birtwistle which he calls Bogenstrich: tiny, taut and elegiac pieces inspired by Rilke. In warm-hearted gesture, Causton included a work by his own doctoral pupil, the Seoul-born Jae-Moon Lee, alongside one of his own, both world premieres.
Whereas Jae-Moon’s piano solo, Tangram, exhilaratingly executed by Hodges, was too burdened by its subtle pattern of knots, puzzles and shapes, Causton’s piece was immediately clear and powerful. The two-part De Profundis for solo cello, played with control and feeling by Karttunen, explored the lyrical qualities of the instrument from bottom register up, as if encountering its aural riches and possibilities for the first time. Then the duo played Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in C, Op. 102 No. 1 which, particularly through the prism of these contemporary pieces, sounded as if written yesterday. “He never does what you think,” Birtwistle was heard to say, one composer explaining, in simplest terms, the genius of another.
The Sunday Times
Surprises all round as a pair of unlikely couplings give our critic a thrill
Published 23 November 2014
It was a fairly bracing surprise to find myself in the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, not to hear some glorious Renaissance polyphony or the exquisitely sung Christmas carols for which the place is world-famous, but for one of the most rebarbative early pieces of Birtwistle. This was the closing concert, given by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Oliver Knussen, of a three-day festival, Secret Theatres, marking Birtwistle's 80th birthday.
And, in fact, just before, at an evensong in which the choir was directed by Stephen Cleobury, there had indeed been an outpouring of Renaissance mellifluousness – music by Robert Fayrfax – alongside a Lullaby and motet (Pange Lingua, from his opera The Last Supper) by Birtwistle himself. Little incongruence here between modernism and the Renaissance, or the uniquely vaulted surroundings – for choral singing never changes all that radically. But later it was a different story.
Silbury Air, flaunting its deceptive title (no music less aria-like), brought into the sanctuary – or nave, anyhow – a thudding, strident evocation of prehistoric Wiltshire. The drummer was like a page hierophant, thought not lifting his sticks up high, as requested on occasion in the score; nor was the pulsing textural insistency as searing in the cathedral acoustic as it is apt to be in, say, the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But the work fared better than his short, overture-like Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, whose jostling, juggled interior rhythmic mechanisms were not ideally distinguishable.
Acoustics were not, though, a bar to the vivid, driven, two-movement Chamber Symphony by Richard Causton, organiser of the festival, nor Patrick Brennan's brief but highly effective "spectralist" excursion, Polly Roe; even if Alexander Goehr's new chamber symphony, ...Between the Lines, with its intricate contrapuntal working, would have benefited from a more focused resonance.
BCMG/Knussen at King’s College, Cambridge
By Richard Morrison
Nowhere has Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday been celebrated more than at Cambridge. The composer has been the focus of an intensive three-day festival called Secret Theatres, a title that evokes not just one of his most celebrated instrumental works, but also the feeling — commonly experienced when hearing his music — of a mysterious ritual in progress, thrilling the ear even as it defies comprehension.
Organised by Richard Causton, the festival featured not only Birtwistle’s pieces but also some by associates and student composers. It was a heady mix, as the final concert by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under the indefatigable Oliver Knussen demonstrated. Causton’s own Chamber Symphony was eventful: plangent brass fanfares and fierce percussion contrasted with dark, desultory episodes and a wonderfully tranquil end to the first movement. Causton says the piece contrasts “the vitality of live music-making and the disembodiment of reproduced sound”; that certainly came across.
Much shorter was Polly Roe by Patrick Brennan, a Cambridge PhD student. The title sounds folky but it is two musical puns (think polyphonic and tone-rows) and Brennan’s programme note alludes alluringly to “the abstraction of spectral sonorities”. Yet Polly Roe turned out to be a vivacious instrumental whirlwind. I’m afraid it eclipsed the British premiere of Alexander Goehr’s chamber symphony, between the Lines. In a different acoustic Goehr’s characteristically detailed contrapuntal writing might make more impact, but in King’s College Chapel it was all a blur dominated by a hyperactive tuba.
Happily, the two Birtwistle classics that framed the concert — Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Silbury Air — sounded fantastic in that resonant space, with Knussen ensuring that the composer’s masterly use of foreground and background came across clearly, those sour, jagged brass refrains crashing like rock-falls. It was great, too, to have an example of Birtwistle’s more lyrical, recent style: the 2011 work Fantasia upon All the Notes, which rises from nothing to a rich, Arabic-tinged mesh of instrumental lines, then floats towards silence again.
By Ivan Hewett
This was one of many clever and revealing juxtapositions offered by Secret Theatres, a three-day survey of Harrison Birtwistle’s music which celebrated his 80th birthday year. Organised by the composer Richard Causton, it ranged across solo, choral and chamber music, and featured top-rank performers. It mingled Birtwistle’s own music with the fascinatingly strange medieval pieces that he loves, and with music by his contemporaries such as Alexander Goehr (his ingenious, sharply coloured between the lines...Chamber Symphony) as well as student composers from Cambridge.
In all it was admirable, but placing the last day’s events in King's Chapel was a mixed blessing. From my back seat much of the detail of the lunchtime concert from cellist Anssi Karttunen and pianist Nicholas Hodges was swallowed up by the vast acoustic. Of the two new pieces, Jae-Moon Lee’s Tangram for piano exploded into being with promising energy, but insisted on its main idea (shapes shifting around a fixed note) a bit too much. The logic of Richard Causton’s new piece De Profundis was more subtle, and as the title suggests led the ear down by degrees to a depth that was profound in both senses.
Causton, who conceived the series, is a serious man who feels art should assert spiritual values against the empty consumerism of modern life. That was the message of his brand-new Chamber Symphony, played in the evening concert from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. At one point Causton conjured an aural image of banality, just so he could vanquish it with radiant, brass-drenched inventions of his own. Which was admirable, but the short, brilliantly conceived Polly Roe by Patrick Brennan soared higher, just because it wasn’t weighed down by a moral message.
As for Birtwistle’s Silbury Air, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, and Fantasia upon All the Notes – all brilliantly played by the Group – they soared too, for much the same reason. And they also pointed beyond themselves to an unspoken mystery, something only a composer of genius can do.