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Harrison Birtwistle: Three Settings of Lorine Niedecker – Piano Trio – Bogenstrich – Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker
Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Till Felner (piano), Amy Freston (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Recording: Herkulessaal der Münchner Residenz, Munich, Germany (August 2011) – 65’36
ECM New Series 2253 – Booklet in English

An all-star roster of ECM's performers join forces in this thrilling disc of Harrison Birtwistle's uncompromising but rewarding chamber music.

The Niedecker settings, accumulated group by group since 1998, distill Birtwistle's mechanistic style into neo-Expressionist jewels. The liner notes point to similarities with Webern, but Kurtág might be a better comparison. The settings are mostly syllabic, and Amy Freston's slight vibrato and pure tone make sure that Niedecker's cryptic verses are easily comprehensible. The cello provides appropriate, sometimes surprisingly obvious painting: a suddenly expressive and consonant harmonic rise on the word "sun"; a descending quarter-tone glissando for "mourning."

Bogenstrich, five movements framed by two settings of the same Rilke poem ("Wie soll ich meine Seele halten..."), is the lengthiest but most immediately engaging work on the disc. The searching piano gestures that encircle the first Rilke setting create a floating atmosphere, perfect for the text. The cello finally enters for the second movement, a "Song without Words," the dark harmonies of which form the basis for the third movement, "Variations." Excepting a few scant outbursts, the writing is mostly brooding, but Birtwistle's surefooted timing of mechanistic gestures, here interspersed with darkly lyrical melodies, prevents the piece from becoming austere. The fourth movement ("Wie eine Fugue") is most akin to this composer's rhythmically jagged orchestral music, its arched dynamic structure reaching a thrilling peak of intensity that allows the piano to slowly evaporate, leaving the cello alone to welcome the voice back for the second Rilke setting. This return is a more painful, deliberate meditation, one that is mysterious and uncompromising. Roderick Williams has a crystal clear but beautifully dark baritone voice, perfect for this selection.

Premiered in 2011, the Trio offers a rare foray for this composer into a "standard" chamber music configuration. Though seemingly abstract, three lines from Verlaine's famous "Chanson d'automne" ("Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l'automne") appear at the end of the score, and imagery from that source are paralleled by many of Birtwistle's gestures. "Choked and pale," "chiming of the hours" and "an ill wind" give rise to evocative musical analogues, all couched in a consistently pungent and rhythmically complex language. The two string players are almost always alternating with the piano, making the piece at times seem more a duo than a trio. The performance is excellent.

Adrian Brendel (Alfred's son) is the star of the disc, the constant presence on all the works, and he easily matches the excellent Lisa Batiashvili and dynamic Till Felner in effective playing. ECM has provided the musicians with recorded sound as crystalline as the music itself. The concise, informative liner notes are an excellent guide to the pieces, and full texts and translations are provided.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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