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London Sinfonietta 1987 & 2007

Birtwistle in the '70s & '80s

Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1977)
Silbury Air (1977)
Secret Theatre (1984)

London Sinfonietta/Elgar Howarth

NMC Ancora D148 [TT: 58 mins]

The importance of this CD of key works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle recorded in 1987, and now preserved in perpetuity by NMC's Ancora, which is dedicated to rescuing important deleted recordings, cannot be overstated.

NMC does not give us its full history nor (regrettably) name the London Sinfonietta players at the time. They do however quote a 1991 Gramophone review of the recording.
(Gramofile seems currently inaccessible on line?)

Amazon carries an enthusiastic review of an Etcetera release of 1994 stating fairly that "Silbury Air has an innocuous title, but the music is stark, menacing, and tense; all three pieces will compel you to hear them again and again". This balances the short (for today) playing time, but at rrp £9 Ancora is sensibly priced and you won't find a dud there.

This was an exciting period for London's exploratory concertgoers. In 1985 Birtwistle had curated the summer Summerscope Festival at London’s South Bank Centre: ‘Harrison Birtwistle: His Fancies, His Toys, His Dreams’, since when (apart from a notable one directed by George Benjamin) it has been downhill there ever since...

These pieces featured in London Sinfonietta programmes and I heard them repeatedly in the early days, always exhilarated even though they are somewhat inscrutable and one has to take them on trust without necessarily 'understanding' the mechanisms of their construction. His music then exuded an authority which carried the listener, and that has continued to this day. I will not attempt to describe the works - that has been done oft-times - but content myself with reporting that the remastering by David Lefeber brings this 20-year old recording to us fresh and to demonstration standard.

Do not be put off by the short measure (for today) of the playing time, but Ancora is sensibly priced at rrp £9 and you won't find a dud in that list.

Attwood, Bailie & Causton

William Attwood: Iwwer Tiermen
Joanna Bailie: Five Famous Adagios
Richard Causton: Sleep; Phoenix

London Sinfonietta/Nicholas Kok

The Jerwood Series 4: SINF CD1-2008 [TT: 41 mins]

A specialist offering from London Sinfonietta 2006-2007 on their own label. Richard Causton, William Attwood and Joanna Bailie are recent prizewinners exploring esoteric cutting edge developments each in their own way.

Difficult music at first hearing, but how will we feel about it two decades on? All the young composers have impressive CVs but we are not greatly helped by the programme notes. Attwood's is to me repellent and not helped by its inspiration from one J-L Kieffer's predeliction for "sudden turns and abrupt changes" in what the composer claims is a prevalent mood of sadness.

Joanna Baillie, who is deep into mathematical theorisation, deplores her piece having been "misinterpreted as romantic and atmospheric"... No way! She deconstructs Bach slow movements until they become "increasingly unrecognizable processed over and over again"...

Causton's piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano is the work more like music as most readers conceive it; he is interested to help the piano to sustain notes by rapid repetitions. His Phoenix (about rebirth) is prefaced by a short solo for flute, one of the last recordings by London Sinfonietta's great founder flautist, Sebastian Bell, who will certainly have been playing in the Birtwistle recordings reviewed above.

In the insert booklet all the London SF players are named, which is good practice for ensemble recordings. This disc is even shorter measure than the Birtwistle CD welcomed above.

Peter Grahame Woolf