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COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: NMC Recordings
ALBUM TITLE: Birtwistle
WORKS: Angel Fighter; In Broken Images; Virelai (Sus une fontayne)
PERFORMER: Andrew Watts (countertenor), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor); BBC Singers; London Sinfonietta/David Atherton


Birtwistle’s cantata Angel Fighter was written for St Thomas Leipzig, JS Bach’s own church. But, as Paul Griffiths observes in his insightful notes, it’s Stravinsky who haunts the score, from the first bassoon duo. 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, with the life-and-death struggle of the Angel and Jacob at its heart. Pungent pizzicato rhythms, visceral trumpets, groaning lower brass and winds shrilling overhead drive the three-way confrontation between taunting chorus, Jacob himself (a committed but occasionally strained Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and the Angel (a charismatic Andrew Watts). The chorus’s accusations exhausted, Jacob is left alone, pleading for a sign: a menacing pulse in the bass, and, from afar, the angel is heard incanting, gradually approaching. It’s enthralling stuff, as is the moment when radiant trumpets call the Angel back. In between comes the fight, which ends in the angel’s blessing and a hard-won passage of churning, rhythmic blues.


In Broken Images, after Robert Graves, the composer is ‘slow, thinking in broken images’ who arrives at ‘a new understanding of my confusion’. Four clear orchestral sections (as in Gabrieli’s multi-choir canzonas), including percussion, spar against each other in a complex play of collision, fragmentation and integration. The London Sinfonietta, under David Atherton, lend it both soul and a zinging edge. Birtwistle’s vivid orchestration of a medieval Virelai is an inspired sign-off. Helen Wallace