Birtwistle: Gawain

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Gawain
PERFORMER: François Le Roux, John Tomlinson, Marie Angel, Penelope Walmsley-Clark, Anne Howells; Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Elgar Howarth
Collins should be commended for bringing to disc with reasonable promptness a performance of Birtwistle’s opera Gawain, only five years old yet already occupying an impressive niche in the gallery of recent British music. Collins has chosen a BBC broadcast from the 1994 Covent Garden revival, a reading conducted by Elgar Howarth that balances the need both of voices to be clearly heard and of the instrumental textures to speak in their own right. Already a familiar sound from the composer’s Earth Dances of 1986, the opera’s violent orchestral melos echoes in the memory long after Gawain’s journeys to and from the Green Chapel are over. No less persistent for the listener is a lingering satisfaction that such a uniquely personal musical style has found the exact means of its own dramatic expression.


Even the difficulties of Birtwistle’s language seem ameliorated by this recording. Heard with a careful prior reading of David Harsent’s libretto, and with a healthy regard for the magic and mystery that in childhood stories kept us spellbound, the opera transfers easily to the theatre of the imagination. Already much praised, the individual performers clarify their roles with a striking concordance of vocal tone and character. Omar Ebrahim’s Fool and Richard Greager’s King Arthur project dismal irony and weakness respectively. John Tomlinson and François Le Roux quicken the Green Knight and Gawain into such lifelike reality that the need of the plotters – Marie Angel’s Morgan le Fay and Anne Howells’s Lady de Hautdesert – to wreck the complacent Arthurian court becomes less a mythical given than a genuine ethical drama. Nicholas Williams