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To enter the soundworld of Harrison Birtwistle is to go on a journey of either diverse and inventive complexity or one of contrasting simplicity, either intensely lyrical or disjointed with the addition of innovative scoring. The inventiveness of the composer’s mind produces sounds that are entirely personal to him, his creativity inspired by the texts he is setting. For Ring Dance of the Nazarene, Birtwistle’s favoured collaborator David Harsent has produced a text connected to the Last Supper based on the apocryphal Acts of John. The words of Christ are heard either through the baritone voice – a beautifully intuitive performance by Roderick Williams – or the chorus. Phrase responds to phrase, interspersed with aria-like passages accompanied by woodwind and a darbuka (Iranian drum). The a cappella works – Three Latin Motets (where a subdivision of voice occurs), the simple two-part Lullaby, or the labyrinthine On the Sheer Threshold of the Night – all show diverse facets of his ingenuity. The harmonically simpler Carmen Paschale has the unexpected addition of a flute to illustrate the text. In The Moth Requiem for 12 female voices, the voices again separate and come together; the plight of the moth caught in a piano lid is graphically portrayed by an alto flute and three harps. The BBC Singers are in a class of their own, giving a stunning interpretation of these complex works.

SHIRLEY RATCLIFFE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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