Harrison Birtwistle’s relationship with the London Sinfonietta has spanned more than half a century and has included more than 30 premieres and performances in 28 countries. The orchestra’s tribute to the great composer who died eleven months ago was overwhelming and heartfelt – a concert, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, that featured both the first and last of the large-scale ensemble works presented by the Sinfonietta and also featured musicians were the Manson Ensemble of the Royal Academy of Music, where Birtwistle studied clarinet in the late 1950s, a connection he renewed towards the end of his life. And with the news of the sudden death three days earlier of Nicholas Snowman, co-founder of the Sinfonietta, who was a close friend of Birtwistle and a staunch supporter of his music, the occasion had taken on an extra poignancy.
Snowman even commissioned the earliest piece in this program, Verses for Ensembles, which the Sinfonietta first performed in 1969. With its blocky construction, the raw, uncompromising soundscape of the wind instruments and percussion, and the mysterious ritualistic elements as the instrumentalists move, The Platform verse remains in many ways the archetype of the Birtwistle score, and as Brabbins’ performance has shown, it has none lost from her exhausting vigour, which stems in large part from her debts to Stravinsky and Varèse.
Birtwistle noted that he always felt like he was composing the same piece, exploring different facets of a block of musical material one at a time, but how his music evolved was illustrated by the ensemble piece here from the other end of his career, In Broken Images 2011. The Musical Blocks now have smoother edges, their rawness softened by a group of strings, and the argument is less static, more in a continuous process of development, while retaining its rhetorical power.
On such occasions one always wants to hear more pieces than a single concerto can contain, but it seemed a pity that the program began with a couple of miniatures, the ‘Conversation for Two Instruments’ Duet 1 and Virelai, an arrangement of which is more of a work by 14th-century Johannes Ciconia as a more muscular piece. There was room, however, for one of Birtwistle’s finest scores, The Fields of Sorrow, a setting of a short Latin text by Ausonius for two sopranos (Abigail Sinclair and Lisa Dafydd) and chamber choir (Londinium), with two pianos and the inevitable wind instruments, creating fragile, mysterious textures around them. Here, between the more shrill bits, were a few minutes of utter stillness.