HARRISON BIRTWISTLE: CHAMBER MUSIC / ECM New Series 2253 player
Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington, Lancashire, in 1934. The winner of the Grawemeyer Composition Prize (1988) and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1995), he is generally considered Great Britain's leading composer in the generation following Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Yet he has never joined the dominant avant-garde trends of contemporary music, apart from the open-minded aesthetic of the so-called 'Manchester Group'. Magic and myth, ritualistic creative processes and a quest for origins have defined his music, which places severe demands on the performers. The conductor Elgar Howarth once said that he had never laid hands on more difficult works than those of his fellow countryman. The reason may have to do with Birtwistle's creative method, which he once described as follows: 'Highly polished surfaces are dangerous. You can only see your own reflection in them. I have tried to keep a sort of roughness in what I do. If I was a sculptor, I would want to see the chisel marks.'
Pierre Boulez also sensed this in the music of his British colleague, calling it wild and unruly, very free in expression, its gestures indicative of a sharply etched personality: 'It goes its own way, relentlessly and obstinately; it pursues its purpose with a sort of quiet implacability; it reaches its intended destination via phases of extreme tension or hiatuses of maximum intensity; the choice and heightened use of timbres and registers magnify its expressive power. These features result in music that is not easily accessible and calls for mental acumen and alertness. In other words, it is music that one has to earn. That, to my mind, is a very fine badge of honour.'
The trio for violin, cello and piano constitutes an exception in the music of Harrison Birtwistle, who rarely deploys traditional instrumental formats. Nonetheless, here he has solved the time-honoured problem of the piano trio – how to strike a balance between the strings and the powerful keyboard instrument – by alternating the instruments or having the strings accompanied by unrelated figurations from the piano.
In contrast, vocal works with instrumental accompaniment are nothing unusual in Birtwistle's catalogue, though the musical procedures are driven to extremes. One impressive complex in this genre is his settings of lines by the American modernist lyric poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970). Almost Webernian in their brevity and concentration, these taut epigrammatic pieces were written for the 90th birthday of the composer Elliott Carter and later tied together with several other works to form what Birtwistle calls a 'bouquet'. In their concentrated form, these miniatures demand the utmost in precision, expression and sense of time from the performers.
The third work on this recording, with the initially cryptic sounding title Bogenstrich – Meditation on a Poem of Rilke, derives from a 'song without words' composed in 2006 for the 75th birthday of Alfred Brendel and performed by Brendel's son, the cellist Adrian Brendel, and the pianist Till Fellner. Later Birtwistle recast it into a commissioned work for Adrian Brendel. Finally he elaborated it in several stages into a cycle for baritone, cello and piano, integrating a setting of Rilke's Liebeslied into the work: 'And yet everything which touches us, you and me, / takes us together like a single bow, / drawing out from two strings but one voice'. In this version it forms the centrepiece of the Birtwistle works on the album, which was recorded in the Herkules Saal of Munich’s Residenz in August 2011, and produced by Manfred Eicher.
CD booklet includes liner notes by Bayan Northcott, song texts, and photographs from the recording.