Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts / Andrew Watts / David Atherton / BBC Singers / London Sinfonietta

Birtwistle: Angel Fighter

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Birtwistle: Angel Fighter Review

by James Manheim

The music of Harrison Birtwistle is bristly, rhythmically unsettling, and rather violent. It is also highly dissonant, and the London Sinfonietta does well here to include Virelai (Sus une fontayne), Birtwistle's reworking of a song by medieval composer Johannes Ciconia, which shows that Birtwistle retains the first three qualities even when working with music that is not dissonant. The centerpiece here is Angel Fighter, a large (both long and orchestrally vast) cantata based on the image, from the biblical Book of Genesis, of Jacob wrestling an angel. With a sparse, forceful libretto by Stephen Plaice that's perfectly suited to Birtwistle's style, the work brings this rather metaphorical tale to literal life; there is no percussion in the orchestra, but the choir members wield the claves and guiros more familiar from Latin dance bands and use them to illustrate the action of the wrestling match. It's an exciting piece, and probably a good introduction to Birtwistle for those who have avoided his music. The shorter In Broken Images, also a contemporary Birtwistle piece, is all-instrumental but cut from the same cloth musically. The London Sinfonietta under David Atherton is as familiar with Birtwistle as any ensemble alive, and the live recording by the BBC at Cadogan Hall is a plus. A recommended modernist release.

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