It’s hardly surprising that Joanna MacGregor should wish to salute her friend and colleague Sir Harrison Birtwistle on his 75th birthday.
As part of the Bath MusicFest she runs, the pianist gave over two of the festival’s 16 days to celebrating the composer.
The second of the days began with a morning concert titled “Pianos, Clocks and Elegies” at the Assembly Rooms, exploring his keyboard and other chamber works. What a splendid idea it was to include young pianists from Bath Spa University and Wells Cathedral Music School. An incredibly young-looking Toby Scadding confidently pulled off Sad Song, and was followed by an equally poised Natalie Mair playing Berceuse de Jeanne. All these connotations of youth were preceded by MacGregor’s opener of The Oockooing Bird, written by the 15 year old Birtwistle (try and picture that).
The Satie-esque gentleness of these first pieces was soon broken by the opening crash of Hector’s Dawn (Kate Stevens) and from then on, we were in more familiar Birtwistle territory. After Betty Freeman: Her Tango (Gina Biggs), Saraband: The Kings Farewell (James Quinn with swishing snare drum accompaniment) and the recent Dance of the metro-gnome (Joe Gatley), MacGregor closed the first half with the massive Harrison’s Clocks, written specially for her. MacGregor is known for her virtuosity but she also cuts a charismatic figure on the platform. Her young colleagues must have looked on in wonder at her ease with the astonishing, frantic rushes of the huge central section (Clock III).
After the interval, Helen Tunstall showed with the 2005 solo harp piece Crowd that her instrument is capable of great expressivity, well beyond its melodic reputation. Close to the composer, not least for its connection with his Orpheus obsession, the harp was prominent for the remainder of the programme. It was one of Birtwistle’s later explorations of the legend that closed the concert, with a hefty selection from 26 Orpheus Elegies. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts, who has performed the work around the world, was exquisitely expressive in both these and the preceding Dowland songs while oboeist Melinda Maxwell provided the plaintive voice of the doomed hero.
Before the main evening concert, two trumpeters and drummer gave a free performance of Birtwistle’s Silk House Tattoo in the courtyard of the Abbey, while Bath life flowed on around them and, appropriately, a huge minotaur statue looked on. This fascinating militaristic parody, bombastic blasts turning to tinny squeaks, drew a sizeable crowd but could have benefited from a little direction as the musicians marched tentatively from one position to another.
There was little to frighten the faint-hearted in the crowning concert within the splendid setting of the Abbey itself. Birtwistle at his gentlest and arguably least challenging was interspersed with works by early composers, principally the Gabrielis, Giovanni and Andrea. We were treated to a World Premiere, with Fanfaro Barolo, a two trumpet fanfare written specially for the occasion while the aptly named Placid Mobile, Tenebrae David and The Gleam all had a lulling effect.
The second half threw out greater challenges, with Sonace 2000 a resounding highlight, as its deep resonances set the space afire. It was good too to hear the Latin Motets from The Last Supper although, having not seen or heard the opera, I found myself questioning the dramatic potential of the material (unusual for this most theatrically acute of composers).
In a brass-heavy evening, London Brass worked well with the singers of Bath Camarata and the Bath Spa New Music Ensemble to bring crisp performances of works by the Gabrielis and a couple of gorgeous John Dunstable motets. But this was Birtwistle’s day and it was good to see the composer present to enjoy an enthusiastic response from an audience that has surely grown since the popular success of The Minotaur last year.
Next week his new theatre pieces – The Corridor and Semper Dowland, semper dolens will receive their world premieres in Aldeburgh.
The Bath International MusicFest runs until 6 June. Further information at www.bathmusicfest.org.uk. A recording of the complete 26 Orpheus Elegies is now available.