Sunday, July 09, 2006

PREMIERES://Birtwistle and Harvey

By Andrew Clements
From the Guardian - Saturday July 8, 2006

A new piece for solo harp may not seem the most enticing of prospects, but one of the marks of a great composer is the ability to transcend any medium and create something totally new and unexpected. Harrison Birtwistle describes his harp piece Crowd as a study on resonance, and has taken the title from the old English word for a plucked stringed instrument, emphasising the way in which he has gone back to the very basics of the harp and reinvented its character.

The UK premiere of Crowd was the highlight of Helen Radice's Cheltenham festival recital, given in the tiny Norman church of St Swithin's, Quenington; it's a piece whose intricate rhythms will tax the technique of any harpist, but Radice seemed completely on top of all of its challenges. The player has to ensure that the harp's strings resonate freely, so the pauses and silences that slice through the 11-minute piece are constantly coloured by decaying sounds, and the varied rhythmic patterns build up over resounding pedal notes. It is quintessential Birtwistle, darkly intense and slightly mysterious, and unquestionably a major addition to the harp repertory.

There was another premiere in the concert given by the Festival Players with trumpeter Markus Stockhausen, artist-in-association at Cheltenham this year: Jonathan Harvey's Other Presences, for trumpet and electronics. Stockhausen stood in the middle of the Pittville Pump Room, playing his trumpet with one hand and operating a sampling keyboard with the other, so that real-time recordings of what he was playing live were stored and projected to loudspeakers around the hall. Harvey relates this to his experience of hearing Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial music, and there's certainly a ritual element in its digitalised processes of call and response. Most of all, though, it's an enthralling and evocative essay in sonority, beautifully shaped, full of ravishing sound complexes, and one that Stockhausen played with consummate authority.

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