Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Friday, May 6, 2022
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Dedicated to the memory of the late Harrison Birtwistle, this concert opened as always intended with his recent
composition Deep Time (premiered at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2017, conducted by Barenboim). Edward Gardner
explained before conducting that he had written to the composer some six weeks ago to try and arrange a get-together to discuss the work but that, sadly, never happened. He had, though, received terse advice from Birtwistle previously about his music, directing “just do what I wrote and do it very well”. This Gardner and the London Philharmonic did, and more. Deep Time‘s continuous span of around twenty-three minutes, for a large ensemble, could be described as a concerto for orchestra, particularly spotlighting the instruments with low registers. These dark timbres were projected with compelling lucidity, however, as various soloists or instrumental sections of the LPO were independently exposed amidst the more searing, striated layers of orchestration sustained across the work at large.

The title refers to the notion of the vast expanses of time by which geological change is measured, and is effectively unobservable by humans within our limited means of experiencing the flow of existence. A blistering forward drive inhered in Gardner’s interpretation overall, and so did a certain dynamic, rhythmic energy at a more immediate level from bar to bar in some less monumental passages, both conveying a foreboding sense of the sublime in the contemplation of those huge temporal cycles. Birtwistle’s characteristic melancholy trait is there, but so is an argumentative urgency as one section succeeds another, demonstrating the composer’s mastery of structure as well as musical content.

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde shares with Deep Time a feeling of wonderment at nature
(even if the experience is notably more comforting in the former) and an intuition of time – or
rather, in this case, eternity – that lies beyond the everyday passage of clock-measured time
in sequences of seconds or moments that the human mind can comprehend. Vivid
instrumental colour from the LPO did, in fact, create a story-telling immediacy, such as the
screeching flourishes in the first song, denoting the pangs of care; the sorrowful oboe solo of
the second for the loneliness of autumn; or the passing horses of the fourth. But in their
singing, Magdalena Kožená and Andrew Staples were less given to narrative alacrity. In the
two drinking songs (I & V) Staples performed strenuously, despite his essentially
lyrical voice, expressing a hectic, feverish urge to become intoxicated, though not with
particularly joyful abandon. ‘Von der Jugend’ (‘Youth’) was more appropriately relaxed.

Kožená sang with a captivating inwardness throughout her songs: tender and vulnerable like
the delicate fading blossoms in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ (Autumn Loneliness), innocent and
earnest for ‘Von der Schönheit’ (Beauty). The extended concluding ‘Der Abschied’ (‘Farewell) brought much the same, despite the fairly determined tread set by Gardner. Some phrases were uttered with unaffected simplicity, like a deadly still recitative, but she remained squarely focussed on the words, bringing some radiance in the concluding section, where the repeated “ewig” was beautifully blended with the orchestral sonority so as to be barely detectable as a sung word so much as another instrumental timbre, sinking into rest or oblivion. Exquisite as that was, it was restful and consoling, rather than cathartic, and so something deeper perhaps still seemed missing by the end.

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and available for thirty days thereafter on BBC iPlayer

UK premiere of Deep Time; Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim; BBC Proms 2017.