Harrison Birtwistle passed away yesterday at 87, Radu Lupu the day before at 76. Birtwistle was one of the last bonafide masters of thorny, post-war modernist composition, and Lupu was adored for his lyrical interpretations of core piano repertoire, especially the Germanic romantics Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.
As my jazz career took center stage, including writing about jazz, my day-to-day involvement with the European tradition has lessened. But when I was younger, I explored as much as I could. I watched several Lupu recitals in Carnegie Hall in the 1990s and attended the 2005 talk by Birtwistle (hosted by Ara Guzelimian) in Zankel Hall.
Lupu taught me the Schubert piano sonatas; indeed, I found his records so wonderful that I have rarely listened to anyone else play them. At one point his traversal of the G major Sonata was in constant rotation. Of the live performances, I remember the A minor sonata D.784 best. Lupu may have had a reputation for making a pretty sound, but he dashed off the “unplayable” final octaves in fearless and note-perfect fashion.
Just recently I discussed the famous recording of Schubert Fantasy in collaboration with Murray Perahia on DTM.
Birtwistle was an ideal modernist, theatrical and terrible, a cascade of atonal notes somehow bought and paid for by integrity of the discourse. I wrote up one of his acclaimed masterworks, The Triumph of Time, for DTM, and also reviewed the lovely ECM chamber music anthology for Talkhouse.
Harrison’s Clocks, from 1997-98, is one of the few piano pieces from that era and generation that can stand next to the Ligeti etudes. (I’ve written elsewhere, “Together, Ligeti and Birtwistle have final word on abrasive mechanical virtuosity in the analog era, before the human race migrated to digital and everything evened out.”) Panic is a kind of furious saxophone concerto: the recording with virtuoso John Harle and respected avant-garde jazz drummer Paul Clarvis is terrific. (Clarvis gets to improvise a bit.)
Upon learning of their passing, I thought I should listen carefully to two performances and pieces that I hadn’t heard before. First, I consulted my masters on Twitter.
Marc-André Hamelin: “I remember we were both part of a multi- piano concert way back in 1991, and amid the ensemble pieces there were some solos. He ended the evening playing the five posthumous variations from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Time stopped. #RipRaduLupu.”
Thomas Adès: “Harrison Birtwistle once said of Messiaen, ‘when he dies the whole house of cards will fall down.’ I feel a bit like it has fallen today,” with a link to Silbury Air.
I don’t recall hearing Lupu in Schumann and Silbury Air is new to me. Perfect…
While looking for Lupu on video — there’s not much without an orchestra — I came across a live recording, essentially a bootleg, of Schumann’s Humoreske from 1983. A comparison of the first minute or so with the Decca studio recording confirms my suspicion. There’s nothing wrong with the studio rendition, but the sense of pure magic in the live recording is something else entirely. The piano is a bit out of tune and Lupu hits a few wrong notes, but such blemishes only add to the sense of occasion.
Humoreske is in seven unconventional movements, lasts about half an hour, and is notoriously difficult to interpret. The music is obsessive and repetitive, a puzzle box hovering in a strange, shimmering outline. Many great postwar pianists have recorded Humoreske, but it is programmed far less often than the Fantasy, Kreisleriana, or other more familiar Schumann works.
“Einfach” begins with a glorious tune. Lupu isn’t scared to desynchronize the hands slightly when pitting the soprano against the bass. When the faster passagework starts, the pianist sounds pleasingly manic, a happy person who might just be a little too happy.
“Hastig” offers a unique surreal touch, an inner melody that the pianist should hear but not play.
Schumann is both certain and uncertain at the same time. Are these almost-banal progressions digressions or the meat of the matter? Lupu lives in the territory of “why?” perfectly.
“Einfach und zart” is the first moment of true stillness, a G minor song perfect for the poetic pianist. The middle “Intemezzo” uses a title taken up many times by Brahms, but this earlier iteration sounds a bit like a Cramer etude given rare breadth and depth. The final Neapolitan cadence is stunning.
“Innig.” When my teacher Sophia Rosoff told me to listen to Humoresque, she said I would like the jazzy harmonies and rhythms. “Inning” begins like an American pop song from the ’30s, and then some of the later progressions are worthy of a modernist like Paul Bley.
Perhaps none of the rhythms would confuse a jazz musician, but there are surprising syncopations throughout, including in “Sehr lebhaft.” I suspect these syncopations were all-but-impossible for 19th-century European musicians.
The structure is wayward enough already, but Schumann goes all in to finish. “Mit einigem Pomp” is a march, a moment of confused clarity, with Lupu delivering the requisite fire and brimstone. Then “Zum Beschluss” (“To the resolution”) wanders around hill and dale, spinning diminished chords from every angle. Lupu’s commitment is unflagging while guiding the listener to the final triumph.
Harrison Birtwistle tried to avoid being a member of the English establishment, but he ended up getting many major commissions and a knighthood anyway. Some of his pieces reference English history, for example Silbury Air.
The Neolithic monument Silbury Hill is in Wiltshire.
I wrote before: Birtwistle’s “atonal language has an unusual base: monody and organum, simple ancient chants harmonized in fourths and fifths. Birtwistle takes that basic material, pulverizes it, and throws it into new constellations. This chant-like aspect of his material is seldom obvious, yet it must be why Birtwistle’s melodies and harmonies have such a distinctive sound.”
Silbury Air is a process piece, where rhythms and melodies doggedly follow mechanical paths leading nowhere. The joy is in the journey, and the various beats and pulses are blessedly clear. In its way, this is a forthright and accessible work.
From David Beard’s comment: “Birtwistle began his composition with a table, or ‘pulse labyrinth’, which comprised various speeds and metres. He then passed through the labyrinth as he composed, his direction guided by a set of rules and proportionally related tempos that ensured relatively smooth transitions, like the gearbox in a car.”
I’m not surprised that Adès likes this piece, for Silbury Air might foreshadow Adès’s own work. The scoring of the percussion section, especially the temple blocks, reminds me of something a bit similar in Adès’s Asyla.
The accumulation of fast repeating notes going at slightly different rates is in the tradition of Ligeti’s “insect music.” And, as usual, one can just perceive Mr. Stravinsky through the primeval English mist as well. Still, Birtwistle has his thing, which is one of the best things ever. What a pleasure to listen two different recordings of Silbury Air streaming online, the older version with London Sinfonietta and Elgar Howarth, the more recent from Sydney Alpha Ensemble and David Stanhope.
The work concludes in an unforgettable manner with four stark chords that the harp rings alone. Just brilliant. Yeah baby. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.
(The score of Silbury Air can be seen/followed at the official Universal Edition page.)