Prom 72: BBCSO/Litton review – salute to Birtwistle with his millennial rarity

The bewildering but never dull Exody is sandwiched between Vaughan Williams and Walton in an all-British programme

The Proms celebration of Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday ended with a performance of one of his most challenging and rarely heard orchestral works. Exody was Birtwistle’s millennium piece; subtitled “23:59:59”, it was composed for Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance in 1998, and brought it to the Proms later the same year. It’s hardly been heard in this country since, though James MacMillan conducted it in Manchester in 2003.

This performance was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton. It was part of an all-British programme that began and ended with Vaughan Williams (the Greensleeves Fantasia and the great, glowering Fourth Symphony), and also included Walton’s Viola Concerto with one of the current crop of BBC New Generation Artists, Lise Berthaud, as the subtle, refined but sometimes over-genteel soloist. Litton and the orchestra coped marvellously with the thickets and tangles of Exody, though from where I was sitting in the Albert Hall some of the score’s inner woodwind and string detail went missing before it reached me.

It remains a difficult piece to get on terms with; in the context of Birtwistle’s development it marks a decisive turn away from the gestural world of the orchestral Earth Dances and the opera Gawain, and moves towards the melancholy introspection of the orchestral works The Shadow of Night and Night’s Black Bird a few years later. But the half-hour journey is a tough one, though full of wonderful sounds – shimmering, high-lying string chords; long, unison wind lines that unravel into a dozen parts or evaporate in flurries of decoration; anarchic percussion assaults; and there are sudden, unpredictable pauses, too, when the music itself seem not to know what direction to take. Sometimes very dense, sometimes bewildering, it’s never dull.

On iPlayer until 9 October. The Proms continue until 13 September.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Prom 18: BBCPhil/Tharaud/Mena review – Birtwistle, Ravel and Mahler
Mena's Mahler was unindulgent but still gorgeous, writes Erica Jeal

Erica Jeal

31, Jul, 2014 @1:59 PM

Article image
Prom 49: BBCSO/Oramo review – curiously ill at ease

Soprano Anu Komsi's impressive technique was at the fore in a fairytale-themed programme, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

25, Aug, 2014 @10:28 AM

Article image
Prom 36: BBCSO/Oramo review – William Alwyn's First Symphony fails to convince
Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO did their best, but there is a reason why Alwyn's First bombed on its 1950 premiere, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

14, Aug, 2014 @3:51 PM

Article image
Prom 75: BBCSO/Alsop – review

Marin Alsop's historic occupancy of the podium for the Last Night of the Proms energised the event musically and politically, writes Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle

08, Sep, 2013 @12:57 PM

Prom 56: BBCSO/Knussen – review
It was impossible not to be drawn into the perennial hall-emptying Olly Prom if you actually stuck it out, says Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle

26, Aug, 2012 @10:24 AM

Prom 41: BBCSO/Wigglesworth – review

Mark Wigglesworth proved once again what a very special conductor he is in this re-creation of an all-Britten concert, writes Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle

15, Aug, 2011 @10:24 AM

Prom 51: BBCSO/Dausgaard – review

Kevin Volans's new piano concerto is a strikingly attractive and engaging piece and was played by Barry Douglas with brilliance and precision, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

23, Aug, 2011 @10:15 AM

Prom 56: BBCSO/Bychkov – review
Semyon Bychkov barely glanced at the sheet music in a memorable performance of Mahler's Sixth, writes George Hall

George Hall

28, Aug, 2011 @2:44 PM

Article image
Prom 13: BBCSO/Mälkki/Josefowicz review – committed and astoundingly vivid
Luca Francesconi’s very effective violin concerto was played with tremendous commitment by Leila Josefowicz and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki

Andrew Clements

28, Jul, 2015 @5:40 PM

Prom 70: BBCSO/Robertson – review
The UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's wonderfully rich violin concerto was the second remarkable performance by Christian Tetzlaff at this year's Proms, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

08, Sep, 2011 @11:13 AM