HARRISON BIRTWISTLE (b.1934): Gawain.
Catalogue Number: 08Q069
Format: CD reissue
Description: Even for a composer drawn to big, mythical subjects in his operas, Gawain is a monumental, epic work. The Middle English poem is adapted by Birtwistle's habitual librettist, David Harsent, fleshing out the characters and emphasizing the role of Morgan le Fay, who becomes, in an exhilaratingly taxing part, almost a puppeteer, conrolling the actions and motivations of the other characters throughout. Structurally, Birtwistle has often been drawn to a sense of ritual, and this is very strong here, with the threefold repetition of motifs in the action of the drama reflected in an almost Wagnerian use of repeating musical material. The music, as is often the case in the composer's output, reflects his interest in ancient myth, by uncannily evoking, through a thoroughly, indeed unrepentantly and uncompromisingly modern, vocabulary, a disturbingly alien, archaic world, in which things happen according to laws and rules that are sometimes terrifyingly different from those of our time. The very large orchestra is used to create monumental sonorities, full of Birtwistle's customary hard-edged blocks of sound, as well as in a darkly sensuous mode, softly sinister. The layering of dense webs of musical material lends the music an intricate complexity, difficult to untangle without repeated listening, but the visceral impact and dramatic sweep of the resulting large-scale paragraphs of musical argument is impossible to deny. Birtwistle and Harsent's characters declaim, rather than softly conversing, lending a stylized, archetypal quality to the roles and making them timeless, universal symbols of human nature rather than historically specific characters, adding to the work's sense of enigmatic timelessness. 2 CDs. Libretto included. Marie Angel, Penelope Walmsley-Clark (sopranos), Richard Greager (tenor), François Le Roux (baritone), John Tomlinson (bass), Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Elgar Howarth. Original 1996 Collins Classics release.