Birtwistle premieres review – explosive duets and fragile beauty

Aldeburgh festival
Oliver Knussen conducted, with Birtwistle challenging the astonishing virtuosity of pianists Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard

New works by Harrison Birtwistle turn up regularly now at Aldeburgh. There were two in this year’s festival, one a world premiere, the other being heard complete in the UK for the first time, and both featured in a concert shared between the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble, conducted by Oliver Knussen, and the pianists Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Dear Dusty Moth, the centrepiece of Three Songs from the Holy Forest, was one of the Birtwistle novelties at Aldeburgh last year. These settings of Robin Blaser’s poems explore the same fragile, disintegrating world as Birtwistle’s Moth Requiem from 2012, with the soprano (the unfailingly eloquent and precise Claire Booth) accompanied by a chamber ensemble in which a solo flute plays the prominent role, echoing the voice’s halting phrases as the text disintegrates in the final song.

The brand new work was the “construction for two pianos” Keyboard Engine, commissioned by the festival for Aimard and Stefanovich, and a fierce challenge to their astonishing virtuosity. Lasting 25 minutes, it’s a typical Birtwistle sequence of musical clockworks. It is sometimes shared between the pianos, which run at cross purposes or generate explosive climaxes, and every so often stutter to a halt, only to take off again in a totally different direction.

Aimard and Stefanovich also gave the first British performance of Vassos Nicolaou’s rumbustious Frames, written to celebrate the duo’s marriage last year. And Knussen had prefaced the Birtwistle songcycle with a charming miniature by Morton Feldman, all that survives from the US composer’s short-lived career as a film composer. There was also the rarely heard score that Debussy wrote in 1901 to accompany a reading of Pierre Louÿs’s Chansons de Bilitis poems, and which Pierre Boulez restored in the 1950s – ravishing aphorisms wrapped sensuously around Booth’s equally beguiling recitations.

Available on BBC iPlayer.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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