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

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Tragoedia; Five Distances; Three Settings of Celan; Secret Theatre
PERFORMER: Christine Whittlesey (sop); Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 439 910-2 DDD
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.

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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.

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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