Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Moth Requiem: Birtwistle choral works

The Moth Requiem - Choral Works by Harrison Birtwistle: Roderick Williams, BBC Singers, the Nash Ensemble, Nicholas Kok: Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 5 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Superb survey of Birtwistle's choral music from 1965 to 2012

This new disc of Harrison Birtwistle's choral music from the BBC Singers, the Nash Ensemble and Nicholas Kok on Signum Classics has a touch of the sacred about it, including as it does The Ring Dance of the Nazarene, three Latin Motets, Carmen Paschale, Lullaby and the Moth Requiem, alongside a work inspired by Classical myth, On The Sheer Threshold Of The Night. The works on the disc span a significant period of Birtwistle's career from 1965 to 2012. Many of the works stretch the adjective choral to its limit and they would be best thought of as music for vocal ensemble with a few using just one singer per part.

The disc opens with The Ring Dance of the Nazarene, a work dating from 2003, for choir, sextet, baritone and darbuka. Here the BBC Singers are joined by the Nash Ensemble and Chris Brannick on darbuka, an Iranian drum. The text, by David Harsent, deals with an episode from the apocryphal Acts of John in which Christ at the Last Supper leads the disciples in a dance. The work is dramatic and rather infectious with a real sense of dance underlying the music, helped by the use of the drum as a sort of percussive continuo. The vocal lines for the chorus are challenging at times, but the singers bring a real sense of the ecstatic to the work; a real tour de force.

Roderick Williams sings Christ's words as the Nazarene though other of Christ's words are allocated to the chorus; this being Birtwistle the narrative is never clear cut. Williams creates a very real sense of the still centre of the drama. The individual players from the wind sextet emerge and recede in the texture in a soloistic manner. The dance reaches an ecstatic climax and then gradually recedes in a lovely ethereal conclusion.

The Latin Motets, O bone Jesu, Pange Lingua and In supremae noctae cenae, would at first sight seem the most conventional works on the disc. But in fact they come from Birtwistle's 1999 opera The Last Supper in which they accompanied vision scenes. In all three Birtwistle's textures are diffuse and intense. O bone Jesu uses a lyrical soprano line set against a more diffuse harmonic backdrop. Pange Lingua has a sense of quiet intensity and the diffuse texture gradually gives way to radiance. In Supremae noctae cenae is simply quiet and dark.

Birtwistle's Carmen Pasquale dates from 1965. It sets a Latin poem by a ninth century Irish grammarian named Sedulius Scottus which the composer found in Helen Waddell's Medieval Latin Lyrics. Birtwistle set the original Latin rather than Waddell's poetic translation. The choir remains in four parts throughout, alternating unison with counterpoint. The work begins with a dramatic declamatory gesture, thereafter we get a quiet but slowly building feel though the sense of declamation remains. At the mention of the nightingale in the text we have the lovely addition of a flute playing some very English sounding birdsong.

Lullaby, dating from 2006, sets a 16th century text which is a sacred lullaby. Using just women's voices Birtwistle creates a sense of lyrical austerity.

His 1980 work On the Sheer Threshold of the Night is an astonishing piece. It sets a text by the 6th century writer Boethius (again published with Helen Waddell's poetic translation), a description of Orpheus's descent into Hell. Notionally a choral piece, it uses 16 individual singers with one soprano (Emma Tring) as Euridice, one bass (Charles Gibbs) as Hades with an alto and a tenor (Margaret Cameron and Stphen Jeffes) as double voiced Orpheus. The result is a complex, dramatic texture with angular but expressive vocal lines and darkly opaque harmonies, out of which solo vocal lines emerge and recede. This creates something complex by mesmerising, you sense that this extraordinary work is a s taxing for the listener as for the singers.

The final work on the disc is the most recent, The Moth Requiem of 2012. It sets a poem, The Literalist form The Moth Poem by Robin Blaser (written in the early 1960's). The majority of the text being an incantation of the Latin names of various species of moths. Birtwistle sets it for twelve female voices, alto flute and three harps. The high voices combining and separating to create a multilayered ecstatic texture.

The performances on this disc are astonishing with the BBC Singers giving a series of technically secure, emotionally intense performances. It feels churlish to complain that I barely understood a word of the text. The singers are ably supported by the members of the Nash Ensemble (Philippa Davies flute / alto flute, Nicolas Bicht flute / piccolo, Gareth Hulse oboe / cor anglais, Richard Hosford clarinet, Jessica Lee bass clarinet, Andrew de Flammineis bassoon, Chris Bannick darbuka, Lucy Wakeford harp, Helen Tunstall harp, Hugh Web harp). Conductor Nicholas Kok keeps everything under able control with a clear sense of the structure and texture of Birtwistle's music.

This disc requires work from the listener: Birtwistle expects his audience to listen intelligently and intently. But the listener who does so will be rewarded with some fine performances of some striking works.

Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003) [24.14]
Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - Three Latin Motets (1999) [9.49]
Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - Carmen Paschale (1965) [5.50]
Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - Lullaby (2006) [2.08]
Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - On the Sheer Threshold of the Night (1980) [13.17]
Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) - The Moth Requiem (2012)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Singers
The Nash Ensemble
Nicholas Kok (conductor)

Recorded in BBC Studios Maida Vale on 20, 21 and 22 September 2012, 9 January 2013

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