Birtwistle: Melencolia 1; Ritual Fragment; Meridian

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COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: NMC
WORKS: Melencolia 1; Ritual Fragment; Meridian
PERFORMER: Antony Pay (clarinet); Michael Thompson (horn), Christopher van Kampen (cello), Mary King (mezzo-soprano); London Sinfonietta & Voices/Oliver Knussen
CATALOGUE NO: D009 DDD
Birtwistle’s output remains scandalously neglected on disc, but the latest issue from the consistently enterprising NMC label at last brings into the catalogue two of his most substantial works of the Seventies. Both Meridian, a setting of poems by Thomas Wyatt and Christopher Logue from 1971, and Melencolia 1, for clarinet, harp and two string orchestras completed five years later, were composed in the shadow of Birtwistle’s work on the music drama The Mask of Orpheus. But where Melencolia is predominantly a monochrome study, a slowly developing journey of exploration, Meridian begins to map out the luminous sound world of Orpheus: effectively it’s an extended love song in which solo horn and cello share the spotlight with the mezzo-soprano while the remaining instruments create a halo of colour around their lyricism.

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On this disc the two pieces are separated by Ritual Fragment, the spare, haunting memorial from 1990 to Michael Vyner, the late artistic director of the London Sinfonietta and stalwart champion of Birtwistle. The Sinfonietta perform without a conductor, their eloquent directness generating one of the most immediately affecting works Birtwistle has written. All the performances, though, are compelling: he has never wanted for superb advocates, just for the record companies willing to support them. Andrew Clements