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.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
HarrisonParrott: 50 Years in a Day review – starry celebration with old-fashioned feel
The classical agency marked its half century with three marathon pick’n’mix-style concerts

Flora Willson

07, Oct, 2019 @12:18 PM

Article image
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Kopatchinskaja review – explosive chemistry, with time travel
Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja teamed up with the MCO for two riveting concerts that sought to demystify contemporary music by invoking the past

Rian Evans

24, Jun, 2018 @3:01 PM

Article image
Principal Sound review – Luigi Nono's fragile postcards from Venice
Alongside works by Morton Feldman, the experimental music festival centred on the Italian composer’s enigmatic pieces that blur instrumentation into electronics

Andrew Clements

19, Feb, 2018 @4:56 PM

Article image
A Bag of Bagatelles: Piano Works by Birtwistle and Beethoven review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Hodges’s cool virtuosity emphasises the links between two composers of muscular intricacy and resonance

Andrew Clements

12, Nov, 2020 @3:00 PM

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
Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim review – magnificent UK Birtwistle premiere
Daniel Barenboim led the peerless German orchestra through two Proms concerts, including a spectacular performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s new work Deep Time

Andrew Clements

17, Jul, 2017 @1:09 PM

Article image
Orchestra of the RAM and the Juilliard School/Gardner review – order and beauty out of chaos
Edward Gardner’s electrifying Prom exploring music and space deals with the human experience of the unknown

Tim Ashley

24, Jul, 2019 @8:55 AM

Article image
Harrison Birtwistle, Medea and me
Birtwistle and David Harsent have written a companion piece to their opera The Corridor. Ahead of its Aldeburgh premier, the librettist explains how Middle English poetry led them back to Ancient Greece

David Harsent

30, May, 2015 @9:00 AM

Article image
Birtwistle: Chamber Music review – Freston/Williams/Batiashvili/Fellner
Marking Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday, this disc including little-known chamber music captures the spareness of the composer's works, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

01, May, 2014 @8:00 PM

Article image
The Corridor/The Cure review – Birtwistle unveils lyrical sequel to Orpheus story
Part two of Harrison Birtwistle’s Greek myth double bill lacks The Corridor’s dramatic impact, but performers and production are exceptional and beautifully nuanced

Andrew Clements

14, Jun, 2015 @2:16 PM