It was a concert about time: of course NO LATECOMERS would be permitted. And Alasdair Beatson had carefully choreographed the whole – timing, as much with music and comedy, really was everything, with the lights falling and glowing artfully as the performance progressed. This latest in Kings Place innovative ‘Time Unwrapped’ series put Birtwistle at its centre, his music scattered across a programme of 20th-century repertoire for solo piano.

Alasdair Beatson
© Giorgia Bertazzi

We got musical mechanisms, games and puzzles, many of which create illusions of frenetic movement whilst also strangely still. Messiaen’s circling chords in “Regard du Temps” (from his celestial Vingt Regards) spun ceaselessly into the warm acoustic of Kings Place, his unresolved dissonances a glimpse of the infinte; whilst Beethoven’s Bagatelle no. 7 came hot on the heels, ostinati tripping over themselves, of the opening shudders of Harrison’s Clocks. Kurtág’s micro-expressionist piano pieces from his Játékok (Games) offered strange flurries of movement and breaths of wind, particularly in the billowing glissandos of the Perpetuum mobile.  

Beatson thrived particularly in these pieces, letting the glowing sonorities ring and dissipate with an immaculate sense of timing and drama. He has fierce energy too, on show in a breathtaking Canon A from the late work of Conlon Nancarrow, written for human being rather than pianola. It’s a piece than sometimes turns pianists into merciless automata, but here was handled with a kind of jerky humour and sense of line that often gets lots in the blizzard of rhythmical complexities, one hand playing seven beats against the five of the other. 

The most conventional-sounding music here was, strangely, to be found in two short pieces from György Ligeti’s Musical ricercata, numbers three and seven respectively; the latter was handled with plain, monochrome lyricism, whilst the former was infused with the spiky brilliance of the preceding Beethoven. It’s a testament to Beatson’s musical imagination that Fauré – his Nocturne no. 9 – and Schumann seemed to inhabit the same sound world as Messiaen and Kurtág, though providing residual emotional warmth. 

And Beatson’s commitment to grasping the mood of this hugely varied repertoire – and unifying in performance – the music really did seem unequivocal. The Martian lyricism Bartok’s “Night Music” from his Out of Doors collection was rendered with weightless delicacy, with Ravel’s La Vallée des cloches from Miroirs it’s earthly counterpart, warm and resonant and equally controlled in mood.

Birtwistle’s music has long been fascinated with mechanisms, particularly the way they can wind up and down, and these mechanical processes work combine with his interest in ritual and melancholy, casting his music along two different temporal axes. We might think of his obsession with Paul Klee’s ‘twittering machines’ or his Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum from the late 70s. Harrison’s Clocks (1998) is cast in five movements – five clock mechanisms – that take their inspiration from the work of his 17th-century nautical clockmaker namesake John Harrison. It’s a piece that describes a fascination with repetition, with ostinati, but rhythmic and melodic, spiralling in and out of each other’s orbits.  

There is less of the grungy melancholy and spun-out lines we find in Birtwistle's orchestral music or vocal writing, and instead an emphasis on attack, decay and resonance: the relatively spare textures of his piano writing make it music of real capriciousness and verve, feeling both calculated and spontaneous at the same time. 

Alasdair Beatson must grasp this quite deeply, as his performance of this extraordinary work balanced both those qualities with the skill the high-wire act. He has an absolutely unerring musicality, matched only by his ingenuity when it comes to programming. Birtwistle’s enormously challenging score was handled with extraordinary emotional directness, every phrase clearly considered for its expressive possibilities and colours and delivered with an immediacy that should be found in performances of all 20th-century or contemporary repertoire. His performance was one of such ferocity and intensity – his foot less tapping than stamping the beat – that it felt as if the music was being composed for us here and now. There was nothing cold about Birtwistle’s mechanisms and sinuous melodic gestures: in Beatson's hands this music teemed with life, particularly in the dances of Clock 2, or the peculiarly Listzian music of Clock 3. The concluding Clock 5, a furious toccata, was spellbinding.