Ancient and modern was juxtaposed here in an intriguing choral and instrumental mélange that showcased the versatility of the Nash Ensemble and the BBC Singers, (both directed by Martyn Brabbins) as well as the enterprise of the Barbican’s composer-curated events associated with its This is Rattle series. Drawing on music across eight centuries, Sir Harrison Birtwistle devised a thought-provoking programme that included masterpieces from Byrd and Machaut, Edgard Varèse and the composer’s own Moth Requiem of 2012, its chamber forces and intimate expression ideal for Milton Court.

Harrison Birtwistle © Cecil Birtwistle
Harrison Birtwistle
© Cecil Birtwistle

It was Varèse’s Octandre of 1923 that Birtwistle chose to open the programme, claiming, in an entertaining exchange with BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley, he had liked the look of the work on the page when he was a student. Scored for an octet of flute/piccolo, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass, the work’s startlingly original textures and flinty dynamism were set in motion by a single oboe. From its ensuing counterpoints and timbral variety, the title of the work, with its allusion to the eight stamens of a flower, became increasingly clear.

If Octandre looks forward to developments in 20th-century ensemble writing, then Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century Messe de Nostre Dame is strikingly modern for its time and ground-breaking for being the first complete Mass ever written. In this performance, fifteen voices from the BBC Singers were joined by the Varèse players, (with the addition of bass clarinet and vibraphone) to present Birtwistle’s especially written “Plainsong Tropes” inserted before each movement; as much an act of homage as a sort of shaking hands across the centuries. These short, plainsong-derived “interpolations” were vividly coloured and did much to break up the unyielding timbre of the voices whose command of the florid rhythms in the upper parts was not always watertight. But there were many glorious moments, as in a passage of quiet reflection on the Virgin Mary in the Credo or in the knotty melismatic writing that concluded the Gloria. The instrumental insertions made perfect sense but the omission of the plainsong intonations to the fore-mentioned movements did not. Overall, Brabbins gave clear, incisive direction.

After the interval the BBC Singers returned for William Byrd’s Lamentations, one of several 15th-century Old Testament settings which prompted alternative versions by other English composers such as Thomas Tallis, Osbert Parsley and Robert White. Despite fine singing, it was a pity that any sense of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem conveyed in these verses was compromised by the forthright tempi that reduced the music’s expressive potential. A slower tempo with its resulting emotional impact might have better forged a link to Birtwistle’s Moth Requiem with its sense of loss and lamentation.

But before that we heard his Pulse Sampler, a work from 1981 originally for oboe and claves and inspired by a manuscript book comprising alternating regular staves with single lines. This revised version drew from oboist Melinda Maxwell and multiple percussionist Richard Benjafield a riveting performance as intense for its own drama (where parts are independent of each other yet reliant on one another) as the player’s own concentrated focus.

And so to the Moth Requiem of 2012 for the rare combination of twelve women’s voices, alto flute and three harps. No ordinary ensemble for sure, but one inspired from a poem by the late Robin Blaser concerning a moth trapped inside the strings of a piano and its attempt to escape. Birtwistle fashions a score of delicate sonorities and arresting timbres where harps imitate guitar and percussion and a lyrical flute (courtesy of Philippa Davies) conveys to my mind hysteria and resignation. To this are added harmonically complex vocal layers (incanting the Latin names of various moth species, some close to extinction) that conjure their own spectral sound world. In this intensely-felt performance, superbly sung and played, Brabbins was the perfect advocate of Birtwistle’s hauntingly beautiful evocation.