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Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Harrison Birtwistle
Recommended Recordings



"My operas and my theatre works are very formal pieces. They usually come from musical ideas in the first place rather than ideas about subject matter. There is something very foreign about the theatre that I'm on about - musicians seem to understand it!"

Carmen Arcadiae, Secret Theatre, Silbury Air
(London Sinfonietta; Elgar Howarth, conductor)


Punch and Judy
(London Sinfonietta; David Atherton, conductor)
Opera on opera

Secret Theatre
(Christine Whittlesey; Ensemble InterContemporain; Pierre Boulez, conductor)
A good performance of Birtwistle's Tragoedia for chamber ensemble should be shocking, bristling, hair-raising; Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain perform here as if they're in an elegant 19th-century salon. Everything's in tune, but there's no passion: it's almost breezy. Boulez is more comfortable with the exquisite, transparent moments in the score, which are played beautifully; but that's only one side of the fascinating British composer. Three other works are on the disc, including Secret Theatre and settings of poet Paul Celan. (review by Joshua Cody)

The Mask of Orpheus
(Stephen Allen, Marie Angel, et al; B. B. C. Singers, B. B. C. Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Davis, conductor)
This imposing score, from British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, mixes electronic effects with traditional instruments and voices in a retelling of the Orpheus and Euridice legend. Birtwistle achieves greater dramatic breadth than the Monteverdi and Gluck versions--but it is highly splintered storytelling. Up to three different singers play a single character in a fearsomely complex libretto by Peter Zinovieff, printed here with eye-crossing diagrams of the opera's structure. Onstage, the piece may communicate on some intuitive level like Einstein on the Beach, but when heard and not seen, Orpheus can be as bewildering as blueprints to a hydrogen bomb. The music is unusually expansive for Birtwistle with long-breathed electronic bass lines. Momentous plot turns have an almost Wagnerian monumentality. But much else sounds like obscure noodling, and there's little theatrical heat, demanding far more of its listeners than it gives. (review by David Patrick Stearns)

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