“Affection is an impossibility”, says Harrison Birtwistle, describing how he feels towards his own compositions. After a Kings Place concert devoted entirely to his works last Wednesday, he talks to Tom Service about his music. He goes so far as to suggest that there isn’t a bar of music he’s ever written that he doesn’t want to change – but unlike certain other composers (that perpetual tinkerer Pierre Boulez springs to mind), he never does.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle © Hanya Chlala / Arena PAL
Sir Harrison Birtwistle
© Hanya Chlala / Arena PAL

Having just heard an evening’s worth of his music – consistently brilliant, transfixing, somehow perfect – I don’t find his lack of affection for it easy to sympathise with. But Birtwistle isn’t a figure that demands sympathy: rather, he (or his music at least) demands attention and respect. It’s some of the most compelling new music there is, despite its denseness. Ignore this at your peril, it says.

And it was in exceptionally safe, attentive hands this evening, with a collection of renowned Birtwistle collaborators in a concert timed to mark the opening of a Kings Place Gallery exhibition of portraits by Birtwistle’s son Adam. We heard various piano solos played by Nicolas Hodges, The Axe Manual for piano and percussion (Christian Dierstein), and a selection of Orpheus Elegies from countertenor (Andrew Watts), oboe (Melinda Maxwell) and harp (Helen Tunstall).

Most striking for me were the solo piano works which began each half. The opener, Saraband: The King’s Farewell (2001), aptly highlighted the sheer quality of Birtwistle’s writing, albeit in a softer, more giving idiom than is generally expected. Hodges played this miniature with an almost unbelievable lightness, lovingly coaxing out its lyricism and accompanying the melody with the softest of soft left-hand chords. Ostinato with Melody (2000) is a similar piece, similarly played, though with added tones of Schoenberg in its sparser, more contrapuntal texture.

Hodges’ virtuosisty came more to the fore in Gigue Machine (2011), straight after the break, a ten-minute work designed specifically for this pianist. It’s a piece which takes in extremes, in mood but also – and more strikingly – in musical texture, and while Hodges’ performance was faultless, it was the talents of its composer which made more impact on me. The skill with which this piece is crafted for its instrument – the particular capabilities and limitations of the piano – is remarkable.

This particular talent of Birtwistle’s – writing music perfectly conceived for the specific characters of its instruments – seemed a little less apparent in The Axe Manual (2000), which concluded the concert. While in many details it is similar to the other works performed (Birtwistle is nothing if not consistent), the presence of a fairly large number of percussion instruments detracted from the narrow sense of focus on sound and texture which makes so many of his other chamber works so enthralling. Too often, the piano part found itself enmeshed in a deep wash of percussion sounds, from marimba and vibraphone to a large untuned complement, and I couldn’t hear the harmonic clarity and sheen that Birtwistle tends to provide.

Quite the reverse was the focal point of the concert’s first half: a selection from Orpheus Elegies (2003–04) for the distinctive combination of oboe, harp and (occasionally) countertenor. Though essentially settings of a series of sonnets by Rilke, the majority of each sonnet’s text is seldom set for voice; it’s moreover an abstract meditation in and around the poems’ thoughts, as well as a showpiece for the impressive Melinda Maxwell (oboe). The short movements have an aphoristic feel, enhanced emotionally by the powerful intermittent contributions of Andrew Watts, who is in fine, full, voluminous voice. Another reason, as if it were necessary, to look forward to the return of Birtwistle’s opera The Minotaur to Covent Garden, in which Watts reprises his role as the Snake Priestess.

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