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Harrison Birtwistle: Secret Theater / Tragoedia / Five Distances / Three Settings of Celan - Pierre Boulez / Ensemble InterContemporain

3.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Audio CD, March 12, 1996
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Editorial Reviews

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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. --Joshua Cody

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. TRAGOEDIA: Tragoedia; I. Prologue
  2. TRAGOEDIA: II. Parados
  3. TRAGOEDIA: III. Episodion: Strophe I -- Anapaest I
  4. TRAGOEDIA: IV. Antistrophe I
  5. TRAGOEDIA: V. Stasimon
  6. TRAGOEDIA: VI. Episodion: Strophe II -- Anapaest II
  7. TRAGOEDIA: VII. Antistrophe II
  8. TRAGOEDIA: VIII. Exodos
  9. FIVE DISTANCES: Five Distances for Five Instruments
  10. THREE SETTINGS OF CELAN: Three Settings of Celan for Soprano and Five Instruments; I. White and Light
  11. THREE SETTINGS OF CELAN: II. Night
  12. THREE SETTINGS OF CELAN: III. Tenebrae
  13. SECRET THEATER: Secret Theatre


Product Details

  • Performer: Christine Whittlesey
  • Orchestra: Ensemble InterContemporain
  • Conductor: Pierre Boulez
  • Composer: Harrison Birtwistle
  • Audio CD (March 12, 1996)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • ASIN: B000001GM9
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,654 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
Pierre Boulez long relation with the music of Harrison Birtwistle comes from the very early times of the Ensemble Intercontemporain as can be heard in this CD in all its splendour, even if this is a chamber CD of very little and concentrated pieces.

The instrumental playing is very "boulezian", clear and precise, making Birtwistle music much more continental, as he is, together with Ferneyhough the most "european" british composer.

I know another very good recording of Secret Theater, by MusikFabirk with Johannes Kalitzke, recorded by CPO, a bit more "modern" in style than this. Both are wonderful recordings.

The recording is very good, very clear and perfect for chamber's music.

This CD is now out of DG's catalogue, but you can buy it in a double CD released by Decca with Birtwistle's music, No. 468 804-2 , together with Panic & Earth Dances by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Dohnanyi, a great CD too.
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Format: Audio CD
I first heard this set in 2002 as part of Decca's 2-disc Birtwistle entry in the series profiling British composers called The British Music Collection (see my review). I was decidedly underwhelmed. It took me several years to realize that the problem was in the Ensemble InterContemporain's performance, not the compositions.

Included are four pieces recorded in 1993, with Pierre Boulez leading his Ensemble InterContemporain. The best of these is "Tragoedia" (1965 -- 20'33), which established Birtwistle's characteristic sound and reputation -- a tragic work in the form of a ritual, reflecting the influence of both Stravinsky and of drama. "Five Distances for Five Instruments" (1993 -- 13'52) features one of Birtwistle's most characteristic types of instrumentation -- woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, flute, horn and bass clarinet). Birtwistle began as a clarinettist. "Three Settings of Celan" (1989-1996 -- 13'32) continues the lugubrious tone with Christine Whittlesey singing soprano. By 1996 Birtwistle would complete nine settings, and they would be combined with nine string quartet pieces in Pulse Shadows, which was recorded by Claron McFadden with the Nash Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet.

Finally comes "Secret Theatre" (1984 -- 27'48) which is painfully dull. I first thought it was the composition, but I recently heard the 1987 recording by the London Sinfonietta, and it is absolutely splendid!
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Format: Audio CD
This Deutsche Grammophon collection of four pieces by Harrison Birtwistle, performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Pierre Boulez, was originally released in 1996. In 2001 it got a reissue in a two-disc set in Decca's "The British Music Collection" (making Birtwistle one of the most unlikely composers to appear on Decca), so if you're considering this material, seek out that.

The early "Tragoedia" (1965) is the most interesting of the pieces here. A reference to Greek ceremonies connected to Pan (being literally a goat, trag- song, -oedia), the eight movements of the work follow classical nomenclature, write strophes, anapests, and antistrophes. It moves from soundworld to soundworld along its twenty-minute span, from simple Romanticism to a minimalistic ostinato reminescent of some Reich, to the sort of smooth modernistic textures of later composers like Lindberg. Yet, it's still remarkably coherent.

I wish I such much positive about the other pieces on the disc. "Five Distances" for five instruments (1992), a wind quintet, has nothing especially upsetting, but lacks direction and resembles the generic modernism of Lieberson, or Eotvos as his worst. The "Three Settings of Celan" for ensemble and soprano, here Christine Whittlesey, are taken from a total set of nine such pieces composed between 1989 and 1996, manage to make a poet as intriguing and bizarre as Celan dull and forgettable. Finally, "Secret Theatre" (1984) promises to finally escape this "serialist assembly-line" as a fellow reviewer has called it, and seems to build at something with the low instruments, but never manages.

I must admit this disc doesn't spur me on to discover any more of Birtwistle's work. Rarely am I so disappointed by a composer, but even the goodness of "Tragoedia" doesn't make it worthy of recommendation.
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Format: Audio CD
Funny music make me feel sad and sleepy
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