Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Works
Nash Ensemble (BIS)
Duet for Eight Strings; Piano Trio; Oboe Quartet; Pulse Sampler
BIS BIS-2561 (CD/SACD) 64:44 mins
Harrison Birtwistle’s Duet for Eight Strings ends as it begins: gradually, its stilted phrases punctuated by silence. The one-movement work, commissioned by featured performers the Nash Ensemble, has been extended since its first performance in 2019 and now spans almost 20 minutes, during which everything and nothing happens. The piece is brightly coloured, yet the shading feels subtle to the point of insignificance. Patchwork sections are neatly joined and despite the varied textures the stitches are invisible. The overall shape is fuzzy; there are moments of irritation rather than climax. The occasionally rasping timbre is contrasted by exhalations from both viola and cello – as well as viola player and cellist. The breathy expressions heard by Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel do not distract in this premiere recording.
Birtwistle’s recent works have tended to develop in stages. The Oboe Quartet evolved from a single piece into a four-movement work. Oboist Gareth Hulse impresses in this complex, fragmented soundworld that blends spiky outbursts and extended notes with a pared-back third movement. Pulse Sampler similarly grew from music originally composed in 1981, with a more varied percussion part added in 2018. The continuous oboe part and ever-changing pulse (set by percussionist Richard Benjafield) is perfectly managed by Melinda Maxwell.
The Trio is more of a ‘Duo’, as the violin and cello are treated almost as one instrument, in duet with the piano. There are moments when it seems as though the piano is playing an entirely different piece, only to be neatly reintegrated before this could be problematic. The balance is impeccable, as is the case throughout this collection.