Proms 2011: Harrison Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (UK Première)

by 5:4

As already noted, this year’s Proms season has seen an abundance of new concertos, the last and most substantial of which was given its UK première on 7 September: the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle wrote the work for soloist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year; on this occasion he was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson.

Don’t read too much into the wordy title; one might infer that a concerto “for violin and orchestra” puts emphasis as much on the latter as on the former, but that’s emphatically not the case: Birtwistle’s is a clear-cut Violin Concerto, in which the soloist takes centre stage, instigating, steering and dominating pretty much every minute of the piece. and a slippery piece it is too, difficult adequately to describe; despite Birtwistle’s long-standing penchant for slab-like structures, attempting to deconstruct this work is like trying to find a crack in a smooth piece of marble; the ear and the mind glance off the surface. Yet, on the other hand, the concerto is as far from impenetrable as it’s possible to get; one might almost call it ‘accessible’, if such a word, used of Birtwistle, didn’t seem so hopelessly incongruous. There’s a warmth to the work that seems to arise from a deeply organic sense of direction. In the programme note, Jonathan Cross likens the piece to a journey, but to my mind it comes across more like a pilgrimage; in fact, Chaucer specifically came to mind throughout the piece, perhaps due to the interesting series of duets Birtwistle has incorporated. Like tales within tales, these five duets—the solo violin in dialogue with, respectively, flute, piccolo, cello, oboe and bassoon—telescope the work’s perspective, almost like a cinematic zoom into the heart of the musical landscape; in one sense, they’re asides, moments away from the broader view of what lies ahead, yet at the same time they’re far from incidental, the violin affecting a subtle but perceptibly more intimate manner. Overall, the concerto seems more concerned with gestural identity and juxtaposition than obvious development; as such, it’s in keeping with the raw, unaffected tone so synonymous with Birtwistle’s compositional outlook, and it’s perhaps this quality too that makes it feel as organic as it does. A 30-minute work of such intensity and busyness as this could easily become forebidding, but the structural control (despite defying one’s attempts to pick it apart) is simply amazing—it’s all so ‘believable’, it doesn’t really feel composed at all. In the sonic realms he conjures up, Birtwistle is as simultaneously unseen yet omnipresent as God himself (or Mother Nature if you prefer).

i haven’t said much about musical details, which is not to suggest that there’s nothing of note or that the music is unmemorable. Quite the reverse: there’s so much that’s interesting, so much that sticks in the mind, it’s practically impossible to know where to begin. The violin, as i’ve said, is clearly the protagonist, but the orchestra is neither pitted against it nor particularly subservient; it’s unceasingly in sympathy with the soloist, ruminative, knowing when to be deferential, while ever prepared powerfully to assert their group individuality. There are times when the relationship between the one and the many gets a little frantic; following the oboe duet, the back and forth between them becomes highly argumentative, but, unlike many of his pieces, Birtwistle holds back from a full-on confrontation, whether between bits of material or instruments or indeed between the piece itself and the audience. If anything, the standout moments in the piece are the lighter ones, the occasions when the violin is at its most lyrical, such as the duet with the piccolo (beautifully dusted with metallic percussion), the tantalisingly hushed episode at the centre of the piece, as well as the inscrutable conclusion, where the violin’s lines slowly fragment while the orchestra seems to retreat into the far distance, castanets and a recurring tuba motif lingering with intent. There’s a pensiveness and a sense of mystery at work here that may prove surprising to those for whom Birtwistle represents a stereotype of rather ill-mannered, staunch modernity. His Concerto for Violin & Orchestra is undeniably modern, but not radically so, certainly not defiantly so; it compromises nothing, but nonetheless radiates its originality in a way that is uncommonly inviting.

Programme Note

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