Sir Harrison Birtwistle died on the 18th April 2022, three weeks before this performance of his 2017 work, Deep Time. Conductor Edward Gardner recalled in an opening speech to the audience, “Whenever I spoke to Harry about any upcoming performance of his music, he said gruffly 'Play what I wrote, and do it very well'.” He dedicated the concert to Birtwistle’s memory – and followed his injunction.

Loading image...
Magdalena Kožená
© Julia Wesely

Deep Time’s title refers to geological time, unimaginably vast and slow, laying down strata as the piece lays down lines of music, in contrasting blocks. Its progress is full of musical incident around a still centre, as a lake of lava is disturbed by intrusions breaking its surface. It deploys a large orchestra, and even though the word time suggests pulse, it is timbre and texture that impress on first hearing. The colours are often appropriately subterranean, with contrabassoons and bass and contrabass clarinets suggesting “deep” refers to pitch as well as the depths beneath our feet. The saxophone sings, the tam-tam roars, tuned percussion add their clangour, lines conjoin then fragment, until bells reverberate into silence, leaving the work to reverberate in the mind. The London Philharmonic Orchestra excelled in mastering this demanding idiom, and it was an appropriate gesture for Gardner to raise the score in response to the applause.

Mahler’s Song of the Earth came a century before Birtwistle’s example. This generally good performance did not quite plumb the depths, and for familiar reasons. The socially distanced chamber performances seen online recently showed that it does not need a large orchestra for much of its impact. Also Mahler never heard it live, and if he had he might have adjusted the opening pages, so the tenor’s call-to-arms could register more than it usually does live. It is, however, hard to imagine Mahler altering the dynamics of the last song, where pp, ppp and pppp occur, especially in the woodwind towards the close. Instead the players often occupied a general mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte range. Even the flute seemed reluctant to whisper its intimations of mortality as the mezzo-soprano contemplates eternity.

Mezzo-sopranos often sing this piece, though Mahler specified a contralto. Magdalena Kožená has every quality for this music, but the lower notes of her voice are easily masked by the instruments, and sometimes her vocal line went unheard. But in such lines as that in Der Abschied when she swept up to “O sie! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt der Mond” (See how the moon soars aloft like a silver ship) the impact was splendid.

Andrew Staples has upcoming performances of this work with major orchestras in Berlin, Budapest, Paris and New York; all perhaps have kinder acoustics than the Festival Hall. Once past that demanding entry of his Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow, he sang well, investing the refrain “Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod” (Dark is life, is death) with meaning beyond the maudlin manner of his other drinking song, The Drunkard in Spring. Schoenberg complained only beer was ever served at Mahler’s table, but Staples’ inebriate preferred stronger beverages, so the birds telling him it’s springtime was no reason not to fill his cup, and his singing, with a golden stream of refreshment.

So a good Song of the Earth, even if (perhaps) the rehearsal time needed to master the complexities of Birtwistle’s score, especially as its long-planned inclusion became a memorial performance, denied these fine musicians the luxury of looking at Mahler’s score as if it too was quite new to them.