Birtwistle: Harrison’s Clocks

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: Sound Circus
WORKS: Harrison’s Clocks
PERFORMER: Joanna MacGregor (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SC 004 (available only from www.soundcircus.com or tel 0118 931 2580)
While wit is something we may not often associate with the earthy, tectonic movements of Birtwistle’s large-scale output, it’s present in abundance in this recent set of piano miniatures. From the punning title – these are very much the composer’s own explorations of process and time, even though inspired by John Harrison’s 18th-century nautical timepieces – through to the isolated staccato note which ends the suite’s furious final toccata, there’s an appealing lightness of touch here. Textures disintegrate as imaginary springs wind down; uneven pendulums and chiming bells can be heard throughout the work’s five pieces.

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This is the latest release from Joanna MacGregor’s laudable Sound Circus project, and it’s played by the same performer who gave the work’s premiere in 1998. She’s hugely impressive, marvellously conveying the gritty, feisty spirit of these often mind-boggling pieces, although sometimes at the expense of detail: the immovable quadruple-fortissimo staccato E with bass rumble, which resonates throughout the fourth piece’s final section, fails to convey a consistently convincing sonority, and dynamic markings – from pppp to an accented ffff – could sometimes be more exaggerated. But it’s a significant achievement, with crystal-clear sound and the warm resonance of Dartington Hall. David Kettle