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.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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