In the mid-1990s, when assessing new pieces by one of the UK’s pre-eminent composers, Robert Adlington wrote that the “individuality” of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s art was such that “hoping to understand is perhaps too much to ask. Continued fascination is more than enough.” A year after the death of the great man, the London Sinfonietta’s performance of five of his pieces testified to the fact that the players thoroughly understand Birtwistle’s art. The band’s long-standing association with the composer, stretching back over more than 50 years, has given it a deep-seated insight into a creative imagination whose work so enriched musical life in the second half of the 20th century.

Martyn Brabbins conducts the London Sinfonietta
© Sisi Burn

Leading the tribute at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was the ever-excellent Martyn Brabbins, that tireless champion of British music. Joining the London Sinfonietta’s players were members of the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, sopranos Abigail Sinclair and Lisa Dafydd, and the vocal ensemble Londinium; a modest gathering that reflected the human-scale of the programme – no Orpheus, no Minotaur, no Earth Dances – but there was nothing modest in the commitment to very fine music-making.

The performances spotlighted Birtwistle’s passion for the dramatic, the ritualistic and the theatrical, his mastery of structures which give coherence to fragmentary gestures, and an unerring ability to conjure up sounds simultaneously visceral and ravishing. Verses for Ensembles requires purposeful direction from the podium and very tight playing from the instrumental groups and soloists; Brabbins was in full control of forces whose playing was a marvel to behold. The theatricality of the piece lit up the stage, and the sounds it radiated were those of Prospero’s island – sounds to enchant, bewitch, overwhelm. 

From the ritualistic to the reflective, The Fields of Sorrow gives us Birtwistle the hypnotist. In this short piece the shimmering poise of the solo sopranos surmounted the rich texture of expressive choral writing. It was evident that Londinium had been well-prepared by its director, Andrew Griffiths; as a non-professional choir they were more than equal to the composer’s uncompromising demands.

© Sisi Burn

Birtwistle’s engagement with his European heritage produced works of striking intensity and heightened colour. In Broken Images speaks to the antiphonal grandeur of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the magical effects of the precision with which the piece was executed would not have been out of place in the Basilica San Marco. An even earlier continental attraction was the work of Johannes Ciconia, a near-contemporary of Chaucer. Virelai (Sus une fontayne) is a delightful re-imagination of one of Ciconia’s pieces, based on alternating refrains and stanzas – a creative device of which Birtwistle was a master. The polished performance had Brabbins and his co-creators – a baker’s dozen – enlarging on Goethe’s well-known view of a string quartet: civilised people in purposeful conversation.

Appropriately enough, the tribute began with Duet 1 (The Message) which Birtwistle wrote as a birthday card for the London Sinfonietta’s 40th anniversary. The title refers to a sculpture by Bob Law on which is inscribed “the purpose of life is to pass the message on”. Passing on the message is what occupied the creative life of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and it is also what animates the artistry of the London Sinfonietta, whose advocacy of the composer’s creativity continues to fascinate listeners. During the interval I exchanged a few words with a fellow member of the audience, a person of senior years who had never before attended a concert of Birwistle’s music. Since she stayed for the second half, I imagine that she too will pass on the message.