Proms 2013: Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (UK Première)

On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things and people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression.

Yet only the most meagre, cursory reading of The Moth Requiem would hear it as an angry work. On the contrary, Birtwistle’s choice of instrumentation—twelve female singers, three harps and an alto flute—intrinsically works against that emotion, at the very least putting curbs on the extent of its violence. But it isn’t just the presence or not of anger that needs to be taken on trust, however; the work’s very raison d’être seems at far more of a distance than in many of Birtwistle’s works. The text, from a poem by Robin Blaser (who also provided the text for The Last Supper), comprises Latin names of defunct moth species, but Birtwistle himself notes that “you won’t hear it”. Maybe they’re there, maybe they’re not there; either way, they play no meaningful part in what we actually hear. and what do we hear? In many ways, The Moth Requiem strikes a profoundly pensive note, which is impressive considering both the limitations and nature of the work’s timbral palette. It’s not lush, exactly, but the unavoidably attractive combination of timbres—plus they way they so effortlessly sit together—mean that there’s much one can enjoy at a superficial level. There are times when the singers let rip with wild abandon, their chords shimmering in space due both to harmony and vibrato; elsewhere, the harpists are given license practically to bludgeon their instruments, breaking up the music’s fabric with beefy clusterbombs of notes. Possibly these are the times when the music might be deemed ‘angry’, but it hardly seems so. One becomes very accustomed in Birtwistle’s music to forces and sounds that seem ‘elemental’, drawn from the void au natural, rude and unrefined. The Moth Requiem makes for a stark contrast to this; it is considered, thoughtful, polished, a testament to deep passion, passion that has been turned over and over in the mind and honed in the process. It is this—passion—that emerges from the piece more than anything else, woven through the soaring vocal climaxes, the intricate lacework in the flute and harps, the dance-like episode at the centre, the overlapping bouts of chatter, and the gorgeously rich occasions when the singers coalesce onto radiantly shining chords. Passion—the best kind of passion at any rate—originates in love, and perhaps, despite the composer’s own assumptions and intentions, what Birtwistle has composed is a work that declares the pain of its loss via an abstraction of the love that impels it.

The UK première of The Moth Requiem was given by members of the BBC Singers and the Nash Ensemble, directed by Nicholas Kok.

Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (UK Première)

FLAC [73Mb]

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