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Birtwistle: Secret Theatre / Silbury Air / Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum

5.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Audio CD, April 14, 1994
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Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum - The London Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth
  2. Silbury Air - The London Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth
  3. Secret Theatre - The London Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth


Product Details

  • Orchestra: London Sinfonietta
  • Conductor: Elgar Howarth
  • Composer: Harrison Birtwistle
  • Audio CD (April 14, 1994)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Etcetera
  • ASIN: B0000000NY
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #892,576 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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By Bruce Hodges on December 10, 2003
Based on the frequency that this disc appears in my CD player, it's one of my favorites. I first heard "Secret Theatre" years ago and was totally intrigued by its strange, sinister mood. It might be the highlight of this recording, but all three pieces will compel you to hear them again and again.
"Silbury Air" has an innocuous title, but the music is stark, menacing, and tense. The subject is Silbury Hill, a prehistoric mound in England with a purpose that has not been determined to this day. Birtwistle's music has a similar inscrutable quality, and it's beautifully performed here. "Carmen arcadie..." also has a slightly mad, haunting quality, like a huge machine gone out of control. Once it begins, it seems like it may never stop. (And with the excellent London Sinfonietta musicians giving it their all, you probably won't want it to.)
This is a marvelous program of some of this composer's best work, all performed with great energy, not to mention a bit of wit, elegantly conducted by Elgar Howarth. It doesn't hurt, also, that the sound is gorgeous -- the clarity allows you to hear all members of the ensemble. An exciting recording that might tempt some who would not otherwise explore contemporary scores.
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The music of Birtwistle often makes me think of a cross-breed between Varèse and Boulez. With Varèse Birtwistle shares a taste for the most piercing sonorities of woodwinds and brass, and some exotic-sounding melodic turns. With Boulez he has in common a dramaturgy of stop and go, with sudden flurries of instrumental activity with a strong rhythmic contour followed by moments of stasis - sometimes both threads are simultaneous. There is less a sense of a steady, forward-moving pulse than in Varèse (although it appears more in these pieces than in others from Birtwistle - just try the begin Carmen Arcadiae for instance), and the music sounds more complex and intricate than Varèse's.

The three compositions on this disc were all written for the London Sinfonietta, in 1976 (Silbury Air), 1977 (Carmen Arcadiae...) and 1984 (Secret Theatre) - Birtwistle had also written Verses for the same ensemble, a piece requiring only winds and percussion, in 1969. This is not easy listening contemporary music, there are no searingly lyrical melodies (although there are melodies, especially in Secret Theatre, as I said with a Varesian flavor to them), it is rugged, imposing, mysteriously ritualistic, sometimes very atmospheric (the beginning of Silbury Air for instance), highly elaborate but also quite dramatic. Not for everyone - even not for every amateur of contemporary music, but for those with a taste for Varèse, Boulez, Carter and Xenakis.

TT 57:47 (Secret Theatre isn't 25:44 as indicated on the back cover but 31:59). Excellent notes. The disc is about to be reissued by NMC, this wonderful british equivalent to New World Records devoted to contemporary British music. It is not yet listed here, but you'll find it on this website's uk sister company under ASIN B001DLUC2Q.
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This is the original Etcetera release, since reissued by NMC in 2008, of recordings by the London Sinfonietta from 1987, led by Elgar Howarth. Birtwistle wrote his 1969 breakthrough "Verses for Ensembles" for the LS, and the new music ensemble has a clear grasp of the composer's vision. "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum" (1977 -- 9'25) and "Silbury Air" (1977 -- 16'15) were written before Birtwistle became totally immersed in his epic "Mask of Orpheus," while "Secret Theatre" (1984 -- 31'52) was written immediately after he completed it.

The most informative liner notes of the 2008 reissue are written by Birtwistle expert Jonathan Cross (see his excellent books on both Birtwistle and Stravinsky, and my reviews of both). As Cross explains, "six so-called musical mechanisms are juxtaposed throughout ["Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum," or Perpetual Song of Mechanical Arcady] ... each presented in turn at the start, and then recurring in different guises and orders to form a jewelled musical mosaic." Each mechanism has a distinctive rhythm. "The opening block, for example, presents a jaunty, asymmetrical dance in triple time.
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Harrison Birtwistle has developed a reputation as a painfully dissonant avant-garde composer, due mainly to a performance of his piece "Panic" at the 1994 Proms and the savaging of it in the English tabloid press. But if you look past the myth, Birtwistle seems to represent not the academic and abstract mid-century avant-garde, but some kind of alternate dimension where 20th century music followed on from Stravinsky between "The Rite of Spring" and "Symphonies of Wind Instruments", with a touch of Varèse. The three orchestral pieces on this NMC release from 1987 are a case in point. Elgar Howarth leads the London Sinfonietta.

"Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum" and "Silbury Air" both date from 1977, a time where Birtwistle was highly interested in musical pulse and its transformation. In these works, Birtwistle juxtaposes or superimposes blocks of material moving at different speeds. The powerful rhythmic thrusts are just as visceral as Stravinsky's evocation of Russian pagan rituas. Melody can play a role too: in "Silbury Air" the dizzying pulse transformations gradually give way to a long flute line, and of the several superimposed motifs in the "mechanical pastoral" that is "Carmen Arcadiae", several are quite tuneful.

Twice as long as either of the two other works, "Secret Theatre" (1984) is an ambitious piece where a rhythmically powerful vertical element, or "continuum", is juxtaposed with a perpetual song-like line, or "cantus". In live performance, instrumentalists contribute to the cantus in turn by standing up and walking to a predefined part of the auditorium. That doesn't quite come across here, but the piece is nevertheless consistently attractive, with plenty of variety in its 30 minute long single-movement span.
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