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Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934)

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Birtwistle: Angel Fighter

Birtwistle: Angel Fighter


Birtwistle:

Angel Fighter

Andrew Watts (Angel) & Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Jacob)

In Broken Images

Virelai (Sus une fontayne)


Harrison Birtwistle is internationally regarded as one of the most striking and individual composers today. His unique soundworld runs the full gamut from large-scale operatic and orchestral canvases, rich in mythical and primitivist power, to intimate chamber works, contemplative in their lyricism.

One of Birtwistle's most recent works The Cure – a co-commission between The Royal Opera House, Aldeburgh Music and London Sinfonietta – has its World Premiere 12-15 June at Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, and London Premiere at Linbury Studio Theatre, London 18–27 June 2015.

Described by The Guardian as 'hauntingly powerful', Birtwistle's cantata Angel Fighter vividly explores the Biblical story of the struggle between man and divine being from the Book of Genesis. Predictably, for a composer with a long-standing fascination in myth, drama and ritual, it's the physical fight between Jacob and the Angel more than religious signifi cance, that interests Birtwistle: the tension, twists of pulse, sharp accents and jeering chants from the chorus make it feel more like a wrestling match than a life-or-death struggle. Quartertones and string harmonics enhance the otherworldly descent of the Angel from Heaven and librettist Stephen Plaice makes clever use of Enochian, an angelic language 'discovered' by the 16th century alchemist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee.

In Broken Images, inspired by Gabrieli's multi-choir canzonas, splits the ensemble into four groups (woodwind, brass, strings and percussion) and takes its title from the Robert Graves poem. Birtwistle continues to draw influence from the past in Virelai (Sus une fontayne), a rhythmically intricate realisation of a piece by Johannes Ciconia, who flourished in the late Middle Ages, around the time that Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales.

“Angel Fighter, composed for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, is a spare and strikingly original piece of dramatic storytelling. It presents the Old Testament tale of Jacob wrestling an angel as a ritualised game between the tenor Jacob (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and the counter-tenor Angel (Andrew Watts) and climaxes in one of the great dramatic moments in Birtwistle’s concert music.” The Guardian, 14th May 2015 ****

“[Angel Fighter] would evoke Bach cantatas if Birtwistle’s gestic pungency did not sweep all before...In Broken Images (2011) — an intriguing meditation on the eponymous Graves poem — might evoke Gabrieli but for the same proviso. The brief Virelai (Sus une fontayne) brilliantly transforms a late-medieval original.” Sunday Times, 17th May 2015

“anyone in 2015 disposed to expect ageing dinosaurs going through the motions should be struck by the energy and sharpness of response in these recordings...Angel Fighter owes as much to terse commentaries from choir and instruments as to extended dialogues between admirable singers, and Atherton couples scrupulous attention to detail with exemplary alertness to the steadily unfolding shape of the whole.” Gramophone Magazine, July 2015

“Birtwistle unleashes all his powers as a stage composer onto Stephen Plaice's text, using the whole building to create a thrilling dramatisation of the Bible story…pungent pizzicato rhythms, visceral trumpets, groaning lower brass and winds shrilling overhead drive the three-way confrontation…the London Sinfonietta, under David Atherton, lend it both soul and a zinging edge.” BBC Music Magazine, September 2015

GGramophone Awards 2016

Finalist - Contemporary

GGramophone Magazine

Editor's Choice - July 2015

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NMC - NMCD211

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Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets

Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets


Birtwistle:

String Quartet: The Tree of Strings

Nine Movements for String Quartet


Harrison Birtwistle is unquestionably one of the most frequently performed British composers on the contemporary scene. Although bowed strings are the raison d’être of this disc, their absence is no less conspicuous in the composer's early and mature works, for he waited until he was nearly 60 before writing for string quartet, strictly speaking, and the works brought together here remain, up to the present day, his only original works written exclusively for strings.

The recording of these works by the Arditti Quartet, dedicatee of the String Quartet: The Tree of Strings, which was composed for them, reflects the most recent development resulting from Birtwistle's working with this ensemble over the past twenty years.

“The Ardittis have mastered the constant turning on dimes that this mercurial writing demands, moving effortlessly between different dynamics and attacks, while still keeping the music tightly coiled.” BBC Music Magazine, October 2012 *****

“Obviously enough, [the] theatrical aspect cannot be reproduced on audio disc, but The Tree of Strings still comes across as one of Birtwistle's most powerfully sustained and expressively compelling musical designs.” Gramophone Magazine, October 2012

“[The Tree of Strings is] one of the most powerful of his recent works, alternating moments of total stillness with passages of great athleticism and rhythmic energy, or long, continuously evolving melodic lines....their performances here are...remarkable for their clarity, precision and grasp of the music's intricate structure.” The Guardian, 3rd May 2012 *****

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Birtwistle: Gawain

Birtwistle: Gawain


Marie Angel (Morgan le Fay), Anne Howells (Lady de Hautdesert), Francois Le Roux (Gawain), John Tomlinson (The Green Knight/Bertilak de Hautdesert), Penelope Walmsley-Clark (Guinevere), Richard Greager (Arthur), Omar Ebrahim (The Fool), Alan Ewing (Agravain), John Marsden (Ywain), Kevin Smith (Bishop Baldwin)

The Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Elgar Howarth

This production of Gawain for the Royal Opera House, recorded by BBC Radio 3, was supported by the Arts Council of England, The Friends of Covent Garden, The John S Cohen Foundation and The Po-Shing Woo Charitable Foundation. It was originally released on Collins Classics.

The re-issue of this recording was made possible thanks to the generosity of trusts, foundations and individuals who donated to our 2013 Opera Appeal. The other two releases being Judith Weir's ‘The Vanishing Bridegroom’ and Gerald Barry's ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ - to be issued autumn 2014.

“Tomlinson pulls off the feat magnificently. There's a deep, grainy quality to his voice that catches the sorrow and cynicism of the Green Knight perfectly...Another strength of this recording is the weirdly intense vocal sound of Marie Angel...As for the orchestral playing, it catches both the dark fatalistic quality of the score and its moments of beauty.” BBC Music Magazine, October 2014 ****

“Birtwistle’s difficult vocal lines and ritualistic patterns need a high level of commitment from the listener: this is an opera best experienced with eyes as well as ears. But for those prepared to submit to its baleful orchestral sound and riddle-strewn tale, Howarth and his fine cast...provide a definitive experience.” Financial Times, 10th May 2014 ***

“Tomlinson as the Green Knight has peerless authority and you can hear his every word...Francois Le Roux here, after a slow start, fleshes out the character of Gawain in Act 2 and becomes a worthy adversary.” Gramophone Magazine, August 2014

“It’s a listening experience that’s not for the faint-hearted: from the first downbeat, Birtwistle’s music pins you to the spot with its densely scored, dissonant harmonies and dramatic, sinewy vocal lines...The cast put in sterling efforts across the board, but it is Tomlinson’s Green Knight/Bertilak that really carries the performance.” Opera Now ***

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NMC - NMCD200

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Birtwistle: Melencolia

Birtwistle: Melencolia


Birtwistle:

Melencolia I

Ritual Fragment

Meridian

Mary King (mezzo), Michael Thompson (horn) and Christopher van Kampen (cello)


Needless to say, the performances, as one would expect from Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta, are exemplary... no one should hesitate before acquiring this indispensable disc. - Tempo 1993

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NMC - NMCD009

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Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird

Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird


Birtwistle:

The Shadow of Night

Night’s Black Bird

The Cry of Anubis

Owen Slade (tuba)


The Hallé Orchestra, Ryan Wigglesworth

‘Birtwistle’s most impressive orchestral canvas to date ... Birtwistle comes across as an old master.’ FINANCIAL TIMES ON THE SHADOW OF NIGHT

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is one of Britain’s leading composers and has received many honours, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986 and a British knighthood in 1988. He was made a Companion of Honour in 2001 and is currently Director of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Owen Slade is one of London’s most versatile tuba players: in addition to his many classical performances, including the premiere performance of Birtwistle’s The Cry of Anubis, he has worked with artists such as Blur, Barry Manilow and Quincy Jones.

Birtwistle is a composer associated with works of forceful and monolithic grandeur so some of you may be surprised by the otherworldly and subtle sound-world of the orchestral works on this new recording.

The Shadow of Night is a slow nocturne, exploring the world of melancholy, inspired by the composer’s life-long fascination with Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I and Night’s Black Bird (commissioned by the Roche Foundation) continues the with the same reflective musical imagery. The Cry of Anubis, part tuba concerto, part tone poem, grew out of Birtwistle’s fascination with Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the necropolis in Egyptian mythology who played an important part in Birtwistle’s surreal recent opera The Second Mrs Kong (1993-94).

This is The Hallé’s first recording for NMC.

This collection of works by Harrison Birtwistle span a period of ten years (1994-2004). All are premiere recordings.

“It’s as though Birtwistle, mellowing as he approached 70, had belatedly discovered his inner Elgar. The Hallé, incisively conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, play with a dark, almost Edwardian, patina...Portly in sound, never pretty, though with its own warm and lumbering eloquence, the tuba seems the perfect solo instrument for Birtwistle...Owen Slade paints a wonderfully compelling picture of tenebrous rituals deep underground” The Times, 20th May 2011 ****

“Ryan Wigglesworth's performances with the Hallé are quite superb, with the intricacies of Birtwistle's instrumental writing always perfectly clear. Alongside these works The Cry of Anubis, for tuba and orchestra, does seem a bit of an occasional piece...but with Owen Slade playing the solo part, it is performed with the same fastidiousness as the other works here.” The Guardian, 19th May 2011 *****

“These three relatively recent works could be by nobody else, yet there is manifest development...The Cry of Anubis is a perfectly plausible tuba concerto, with a superb soloist in Slade. Wigglesworth admirably brings out key detail from fiendishly complex scores.” Sunday Times, 22nd May 2011 ***

“the wait...has been worthwhile, not least when Ryan Wigglesworth (a composer of real promise) has so evident an affinity with music that can easily become earthbound in less sympathetic hands, with the Halle giving of its best....this performance of [Cry of Anubis] does ample justice to the music's sometimes aggressive but more often wistful melancholy...A disc worth acquiring by Birtwistle sceptics and a mandatory purhcase for admirers.” International Record Review, July/August 2011

“these are among the most powerful orchestral pieces of recent years...Wigglesworth and the Halle give performances of amazing concentration, accuracy and passion, aided by recorded sound of a matching depth and clarity...there's no doubting [Slade's] virtuosity, which encompasses the lyrical as well as the acerbic: yelps and barks remind us that Anubis was the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead...Overall an essential release.” BBC Music Magazine, September 2011 *****

“In a welcome if rare excursion into contemporary msuic, and recorded with tinglingly immediate atmosphere, the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth sound on top form throughout” Gramophone Magazine, October 2011

GGramophone Awards 2011

Best of Category - Contemporary

BBC Music Magazine Awards 2012

Premiere Recording of the Year

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NMC - NMCD156

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Birtwistle: Pulse Sampler

Birtwistle: Pulse Sampler


Birtwistle:

Pulse Sampler

Richard Benjafield (percussion)

Holt, Simon:

Banshee

Richard Benjafield (percussion)

Maxwell, M:

Elegy

Jan Gruithuyzen (piano)


Melinda Maxwell (oboe)

“Melinda Maxwell displaying that phenomenal range of colour and superfine technical control which inspired these composers to write to for her in the first place. This well-conceived and excellently recorded programme is an attractive introduction to much that is most appealing in contemporary British music.” Gramophone Magazine

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NMC - NMCD042S

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Birtwistle: Punch and Judy

Birtwistle: Punch and Judy

A tragical comedy or a comical tragedy


Stephen Roberts, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Jan DeGaetani, Philip Langridge, David Wilson- Johnson & John Tomlinson

London Sinfonietta, David Atherton

Punch and Judy elaborates the traditional puppet-play into an opera of stylised violence and ritual. While the simplicity of the children’s entertainment is retained in the opera by the characters—familiar and puppet-like—by the invented ‘nursery-rhymes’ of the libretto, and by the waltzes, lullabies and serenades of the music, the tragi-comic actions of a homicidal puppet are raised almost to the status of myth as Punch murders Judy over and over again.

“It's almost 40 years since the 1968 premiere of Punch and Judy, celebrated in legend as a rude gesture in the face of Aldeburgh primness, and with hindsight as one of the finest achievements by Britten's most gifted British successor in the field of opera composition.
Good though it would be to have a new performance, the chances of something recent outclassing this 1979 version are remote. David Atherton has total empathy with the tricky blend of short numbers and culminative intensity, and draws brilliantly polished and characterful playing from the London Sinfonietta. The dream cast is headed by Stephen Roberts's stunning portrayal of Mr Punch as a demented Oxbridge choral scholar, and by David Wilson- Johnson's suave, sinister Master of Ceremonies, while Philip Langridge and John Tomlinson make telling contributions. This, it need hardly be said, is not 'slice of life' opera, but the characters are animated and individualised, as they should be, through music which fits Stephen Pruslin's hilariously concise word-games like a glove. And if all this weren't enough, the fabulous Phyllis Bryn-Julson comes into her own in the final stages, a succession of vivid, poignant musical moments which Birtwistle has never bettered. And given NMC's no-deletion policy, this classic set is here to stay. No collection should be without it.”
Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010

“David Atherton has total empathy with the tricky blend of short numbers and culminative intensity, and draws brilliantly polished and characterful playing from the London Sinfonietta. The dream cast is headed by Stephen Roberts's stunning portrayal of Mr Punch as a demented Oxbridge choral scholar, and by David Wilson-Johnson's suave, sinister Master of Ceremonies, while Philip Langridge and John Tomlinson make telling contributions.” Gramophone Magazine, September 2007

“This brilliantly sung and played account has a gripping luridness that makes it hard to imagine how the work—a 1960s expressionist masterpiece—could be done differently, never mind better. Setting a libretto of manic intellectuality by Stephen Pruslin, the opera moves with an implacable, raucous energy that is unique” Sunday Times

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NMC - NMCD138

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Birtwistle - Secret Theatre

Birtwistle - Secret Theatre


Birtwistle:

Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum

Secret Theatre

Silbury Air


Classic recording from the London Sinfonietta, previously released on Etcetera. (NMC makes another deleted disc permenently available.)

Secret Theatre explores Birtwistle’s fascination with ritual and takes its title from a Robert Graves poem.

Silbury Air is stark, menacing, and tense and named after the prehistoric mound Silbury Hill in England.

‘No more exciting recording of contemporary music than this has appeared for many a day. It celebrates the virtues, and the virtuosity, of the London Sinfonietta and also celebrates the Sinfonietta’s long association with Harrison Birtwistle, including three of the four most substantial works he has written for them. It is Secret Theatre (1984) that makes this new recording special … it is an enthralling exploration of the interaction between what Birtwistle terms ‘cantus’ and ‘continuum’—chant-like melody and block-like, chordally-constructed harmony. These two elements are of equal importance, and serve to promote the real drama of the music: the confrontation, and achievement of equilibrium, between individual and collective. These compositions leave no doubts as to why Birtwistle is such a formidable, acclaimed presence on the contemporary scene. All that needs to be said about the performances, and the recording, is that they do the music justice.’ Gramophone

“When these recordings first appeared Birtwistle enthusiasts were still absorbing the impact of three 1986 premieres, Earth Dances, The Mask ofOrpheus and Yan Tan Tethera – works which helped to catapult a highly regarded composer into something as close to superstardom as contemporary classical music can provide. SecretTheatre, the longest of the three works, was itself a mere three years old in 1987: more than two decades on, its elaboration and refinement of basic formal and textural elements present in Silbury Air and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (both from 1977) is ever more striking.
Written between The Mask of Orpheus and the no less epic enterprise of Earth Dances, SecretTheatre really does mark a great leap forward, and this performance captures the special, pioneering dedication and enthusiasm which Elgar Howarth and the London Sinfonietta were able to summon up in those days. The recording, even with sensitive remastering, can't give a full picture of the spatial processes at work, involving the tension and interaction between separated individuals and groups, but it is still a highly charged, eloquent account of one of the composer's most powerful and most personal scores.
The more starkly differentiated mechanisms of the other pieces now seem like relatively unelaborated blueprints for the riches to follow, and despite the very different connotations of their titles – the Wiltshire landscape in Silbury Air, a Paul Klee canvas in Carmen Arcadiae – there are evident similarities, as well as moments which now sound unexpectedly derivative (for example, of Ligeti at the opening of Silbury Air). But that simply reinforces Birtwistle's importance as part of the European modernist mainstream, something to which his substantial and distinctive contribution remains a thing to wonder at as he approaches his 75th birthday.”
Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010

“Written between The Mask of Orpheus and the no less epic enterprise of Earth Dances, Secret Theatre really does mark a great leap forward, and this performance… is… highly charged, eloquent account of one of the composer's most powerful and most personal scores.” Gramophone Magazine, Awards Issue 2008

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NMC - NMCD148

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Birtwistle: Songs 1970–2006

Birtwistle: Songs 1970–2006


Birtwistle:

Nenia: The Death Of Orpheus

Orpheus Elegies

Fantasia III

Nine Settings for Lorine Niedecker for Soprano and cello

Frieze I

Lullaby

Songs by Myself

Cantus Iambeus

plus:

Interview with Birtwistle


Alice Rossi (soprano)

Das Neue Ensemble, Kuss Quartet, Soloists of the Hochschule für Musik,Theater und Medien Hannover, Stefan Asbury

Among the events celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday last year were two concerts in Hannover, attended by the composer, which concentrated on his songs, the highlights of which feature on this release.

Birtwistle’s ‘songs’ blur the boundaries between vocal and instrumental techniques; on occasion, indeed, they involve instruments only.

The songs are a relatively neglected part of Birtwistle’s output: this CD contains the first recording of the Canteus Iambeus, the first recording of the Lullaby for solo voices and the only recording currently available of the Songs by Myself.

These pieces highlight his fondness in juxtaposing the static and the violently dynamic, his concern with ritual and myth, and his obsession with the Orpheus myth. This CD also features a recording of Sir Harrison talking about his songs in interview.

The recording features the young Italian soprano Alice Rossi, as well as some of the rising names of the next generation, the star students of the Institute of Chamber Music and Lied, University of Music, Drama and Media, Hanover. It also includes performances by the Kuss Quartet, winners of a Borlotti-Buitoni Award in 2003, and by the crack Das Neue Ensemble, conducted by modern-music specialist Stefan Asbury, Chief Conductor of the Noord Nederlands Orkest.

“the performance is admirable and all the recordings, taken from an 80th-birthday celebration of Birtwistle's music in Germany, are satisfyingly polished and atmospheric.” Gramophone Magazine, September 2015

“Birtwistle identifies songwriting — Dowlandishly — with melancholia, and compares word-setting to the setting of jelly.” Sunday Times, 12th July 2015

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Toccata Classics - TOCC0281

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Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus

Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus


Birtwistle's awe-inspiring masterpiece is a key work in the development of post-war opera, groundbreaking in its fusion of music, song, drama, myth and electronics. The three discs are accompanied by a facsimile of Peter Zinovieff's remarkable libretto.

“Birtwistle's opera is about the Orpheus myth, but the familiar story has been fragmented. Each of the principal characters is represented by two singers and a (silent) dancer, and much of what happens isn't directly described in the libretto. Without following the libretto you won't be able to follow everything being sung; at times very little (the text is sometimes broken up; some passages, including much of Act 3, are sung in an invented language). Rituals are often at their most powerful when they appeal to the imagination rather than to reason, and here the sense of ritual is awesomely powerful.
It's an extraordinarily patterned opera, with many varied repetitions, all meticulously labelled ('First Structure of Decision', 'Second Time Shift' and so on) in the score. The ritual repetitions, the elaborate patternings and allegorical structures make their own effect. In the boldest of these, the 17 'arches' over which Orpheus passes in his quest for Euridice in Act 2, Birtwistle aids comprehension by quite extensive use of speech. But the music says far more than the sometimes enigmatic words, and the ceremonial retelling of the whole story in Act-3, would perhaps have less impact if the words of the song verses were comprehensible. Birtwistle communicates his refracted but gripping myth with, above all, orchestral colour: an orchestra of wind, percussion and plucked instruments (plus tape, sampler and a small chorus) used with vivid mastery. The sheer sound of this opera is quite haunting and moving. The Mask of Orpheus is a masterpiece, and this performance is fully worthy of it. There are no weak links at all in the extremely fine cast. Although it's unfair to single out any singer for special mention, Jon Garrison's portrayal of Orpheus the Man is outstanding.
The recording, direct and pungent but by no means lacking in atmosphere, leaves nothing to be desired.”
Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010

“Birtwistle’s awe-inspiring masterpiece is a key work in the development of post-war opera, groundbreaking in its fusion of music, song, drama, myth and electronics” Gramophone Magazine

GGramophone Awards 1998

Winner - Contemporary

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NMC - NMCD050

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