Birtwistle: Panic; Earth Dances

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
LABELS: Argo
WORKS: Panic; Earth Dances
PERFORMER: John Harle (saxophone), Paul Clarvis (drumkit); BBC SO/Andrew Davis, Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
CATALOGUE NO: 452 104-2
Shorn of the attention it received at its premiere at the Last Night of the 1995 Proms, Panic seems just another example of the ‘instrumental theatre’ that Harrison Birtwistle has made all his own. John Harle’s alto saxophone is the chorus leader, wailing, snarling and skirling almost continuously for 18 minutes. He is challenged more than aided by the drumkit of Paul Clarvis and accompanied by a typical Birtwistle ensemble of wind and percussion. It may not be among its composer’s best examples: neither material nor structure is strong enough to sustain attention consistently. The drama involving the drumkit really needs to be seen to make its proper impact, too. But Panic is rather more than an occasional piece.

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Earth Dances, ten years old, has already become a contemporary classic, and this second recording is fully deserved. Richness and depth are among the keys to the composition’s success: the way, for instance, in which melody finds a path through the clashing and combining of the six independent ‘strata’ that help give the work its title. While Eötvös’s live performance (a 1991 Collins single) has more poetry, atmosphere and even perhaps excitement, Dohnányi’s recording has plenty of rhythmic bite as well as astonishing clarity. Keith Potter