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Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
WORKS: Night’s Black Bird; The Shadow of Night; The Cry of Anubis
PERFORMER: Owen Slade (tuba); Hallé/Ryan Wigglesworth

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Birtwistle may be a musical bogeyman for some, but these are among the most powerful orchestral pieces of recent years. Both The Shadow of Night and Night’s Black Bird are related to Dürer’s engraving Melencolia 1, which inspired a work with that title in the mid 1970s. Each of them, too, is musically underpinned by a song by that master of melancholy, John Dowland.
Birtwistle’s typical subterranean rumblings at the start expand into spans of melody in the strings, sometimes fractured, or punctuated by bird cries in the wind (more explicitly in Night’s Black Bird), or chordal interjections in the brass, but moving forward with inexorable strength and purpose.

There’s little of the turbulent rhythmic energy that characterises so many of Birtwistle’s scores: these are grim but beautiful nocturnes, full of poignant menace, and Ryan Wigglesworth and the Hallé give performances of amazing concentration, accuracy and passion, aided by recorded sound of a matching depth and clarity.

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In The Cry of Anubis, Owen Slade’s tuba is rather forward in the balance at times, but there’s no doubting his virtuosity, which encompasses the lyrical as well as the acerbic: yelps and barks remind us that Anubis was the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead. A slow processional for much of its length, it begins almost tonally, before departing into other musical realms. Overall an essential release. Martin Cotton