As a very generous birthday present for ‘Accrington’s Finest’, Harrison Birtwistle, the BBC pulled out all the stops to give a revelatory performance of the composer’s most Wagnerian opera, Gawain. And what an extraordinary gift this proved to be, not only for the 80-year-old composer, but also for those of us packed into the Barbican Hall to hear it.

John Tomlinson (The Green Knight) © Mark Allen
John Tomlinson (The Green Knight)
© Mark Allen

When it was first performed at Covent Garden in 1991, some critics felt that Act I was too long and the composer revised and shortened  it for the revival in 1993. This version restored faith in the piece, but it hasn’t led to any further productions in this country. So, it was a timely reminder of the works quality to have it very effectively brought off in this clever semi-staged version by John Lloyd Davies.

As with many concert performances of musically strong operas, the focus was shifted from the production to the music and in particular to the orchestra. This was a huge plus for Gawain, whose wonderful, sweeping orchestral score is the glory of the piece. Constantly shifting between the darkly simmering to the violently boiling, there is an underlying sense that a true resolution is not possible in this intense world the composer creates, where impending doom and inevitable decay dominate. Each of the acts dies away without ceremony, though the end of Act II has an added sense of mystery created by strange birdlike woodwind writing. All this was brought to life by the BBCSO brilliantly marshalled by Martin Brabbins, whose collective technical precision and stamina was truly breathtaking. 

There has been criticism of Birtwistle’s vocal writing, which has been considered by some to be ungrateful and overly angular, but in this performance, with a uniformly excellent group of singers on top form, none of these concerns seemed valid. Much of the vocal writing is lyrical and very well inflected around the simple and direct English libretto by David Harsent. Outstanding for me among the singers were soprano Laura Aikin, whose ever-present Morgan le Fay had some of the most lyrical music and Leigh Melrose as Gawain, who grew into his role and was ultimately very moving, as a shamed and broken man in the last scene of the opera. But you cannot forget John Tomlinson (Accrington’s second finest) who recreated his role as the Green Knight with such easy conviction and overwhelming stage presence that you wondered how anyone else could ever dare take on this role in the future.

Despite the cuts made to the Act I in the revision this was still a long evening, but judging by the concentration and applause of the audience, it was well worth the effort. This stunning performance revealed the full grandeur of the piece and its Wagnerian scale seemed entirely appropriate. Like Wagner, there was something miraculous about the complexity and fluency of the orchestral writing, which was brought out here more clearly than in the original the Covent Garden production. What you lost in terms of the visual and theatrical was counterbalanced by the clarity of the inspired music making here. 

*****