HARRISON BIRTWISTLE (b.1934): Piano Trio, Duet for 8 Strings, Pulse Sampler for Oboe and Percussion, Oboe Quartet.
Catalogue Number: 01X051
Description: The major find here is the work receiving its world premiere recording (and also the largest piece on the CD); the 2018 Duet for Eight Strings, for viola and piano. The composer describes this as ‘a string quartet for two players’, which in its richness of content and texture it certainly resembles, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it sounds like a quintessential Birtwistle work for ensemble. The linear, dense contrapuntal lines woven from multiple stopped strings possess the elemental strength and mystery of Birtwistle’s English prehistory and landscape inspired pieces, characteristics that have always informed his most powerful works, up to the largest scale, such as the opera Gawain. Archaic ritual is suggested by the familiar slow, inexorably turning mechanisms, and the dark tones of the instruments emphasise the sense of shadowy ambiguity of meaning. The mechanisms of Pulse Sampler were originally delineated by claves, but the wider range of percussion timbres in this new version lend it a more momentous feel, the solitary oboe, obliged to follow the ritual pulse of the percussion sounding like a sacrificial victim, chanting, pleading, and screaming as part of some barbaric ceremony. The 2009-10 Oboe Quartet and the 2011 Trio almost (almost!) sound like "conventional" chamber music by comparison, with their discourse between lines or between solo (or in the case of the Trio, duo) lines and "accompaniment. Typically Birtwistle-esque ostinati and spiky sounds and gestures abound, although in the quartet the oboe is given a good deal of sustained melody besides, one extended passage in the second, “slow" movement, over a mechanistic string accompaniment particularly standing out. It sounds facetious to suggest that this is Birtwistle's piece of "romantic chamber music", given his consistent and unapologetic modernism, but it is hard not to hear it as something of the sort, and unless tonality is a prerequisite of your listening habits, it is an approachable and attractive work. Nash Ensemble.