British classical composer Harrison Birtwistle. Picture credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber works (BIS)

The British composer — still writing at 87 years of age — is an acquired taste

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Into every musical life, a little Birtwistle must fall. Do not read anything pejorative into that statement. I have been smitten by the British composer’s major works for half my life, and if some of them can test one’s patience on first hearing they usually deliver rewards on repetition.

Birtwistle is an acquired taste; he works hard at complex textures and does not readily produce long lyrical lines. He’s a one-off: a loner, an original, a man on an unmarked path in an untrodden field.

Truth to tell, I was a little deterred by a full-length compilation album of his chamber music of the last ten years, not least because the Birtwistle I know is full-on orchestral and I feared the small stuff might be ascetic.

The concluding Oboe Quartet is a right little cracker

Not a bit of it. A 2011 trio for violin cello and piano is as agreeable as one of Beethoven’s, albeit with tougher phrases and a bit ruder around the edges. I did not warm greatly to a Duet for 8 Strings, which seemed a bit like in-talk, and Pulse Sampler or 1981, revised in 2018, is showing its age. But the concluding Oboe Quartet is a right little cracker, an evening’s chit-chat in a snug bar with plenty of gossip to exchange. 

The musicians, members of the Nash Ensemble, are plainly having fun. They include violist Lawrence Power, cellist Adrian Brendel, pianist Tim Horton and oboist Melinda Maxwell. Birtwistle, 88 this year, is still writing.

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