Birtwistle: Secret Theatre; The Death of Orpheus; Ritual Fragment

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: CPO
WORKS: Secret Theatre; The Death of Orpheus; Ritual Fragment
PERFORMER: Rosemary Hardy (sop); Musikfabrik NRW/Johannes Kalitzke
CATALOGUE NO: 999 360-2 DDD
Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre has joined that very select group of difficult postwar pieces which have been recorded more than once. This is actually the third version, more evidence of the baffling economics of contemporary music recording; can there really be enough Birtwistle fans out there to support three rival versions? One hopes so, for they all have their virtues.

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This one is played and recorded with scrupulous care and, unlike the others, gives a glimpse of the withdrawn, hushed side of Birtwistle in the form of his Nenia: The Death of Orpheus. Soprano Rosemary Hardy admirably projects the huge variety of vocal gesture required by this piece, without sacrificing beauty of tone. And the players and conductor seem temperamentally better suited to this solemn, groping, crepuscular music, and to the meditative and moving Ritual Fragment, than they do to the rude energy of Secret Theatre. There is a savage exuberance to this music which Kalitzke’s careful performance misses (as does Boulez on DG). Added to which, the engineers have enhanced the distinction between the soloists and the rest of the ensemble, thus increasing the impression of finickiness. For sheer intensity, neither Kalitzke nor Boulez can match Elgar Howarth’s original London Sinfonietta version. Ivan Hewett