Birtwistle: Tragoedia; Five Distances; Three Settings of Celan; Secret Theatre

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COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
WORKS: Tragoedia; Five Distances; Three Settings of Celan; Secret Theatre
PERFORMER: Christine Whittlesey (sop); Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez
Tragoedia and Secret Theatre are two of Harrison Birtwistle’s finest compositions. The former is the work by which he firmly established himself; like Punch and Judy, the opera it spawned, the piece is immediate in impact, often aggressive; its block-like, almost symmetrical structure makes it surprisingly easy to follow. It’s good to see the work return to the catalogue.


Secret Theatre, from what must now be viewed as this composer’s middle period, was an important step towards a more complex and goal-directed approach. Its ‘instrumental theatre’ is further dramatised and clarified by the movement of players on stage. But, on disc at least, the piece is still a greater challenge; I suppose increased separation of the players would have sounded too artificial.


Two shorter, recent pieces for smaller forces complete a compelling disc. Five Distances for wind quintet finds Birtwistle in an uncommonly relaxed mood: more breathing space, more audible connections between lines. The first of the Three Settings of Celan, for soprano, two clarinets and three lower strings, is almost indulgent; elsewhere Birtwistle uses spare textures to more elusive ends. Sharply etched, responsive performances; in the songs, Whittlesey is passionate but clean and clear. Keith Potter