(Click underlined movements to hear MP3 format sound clips.)
26 Elegies, including
Elegy 8, "See, the machine:"
Elegy 10, "Beautiful playmate of the invincible cry."
Elegy 11, "Only who ate with the dead ...
Elegy 15, "And everything was her sleep."
Elegy 20, "In the end they broke you, driven by vengeance,"
Elegy 22, "In the timber-frames of gloomy bell-lofts let yourself
Melinda Maxwell (oboe),
Helen Tunstall (harp), Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
THREE BACH ARIAS
1. Seufzer, Thränen, Kummer, Noth from the Cantata
Ich Hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 (1713)
2. Weh der Seele, die den Schaden from the Cantata
Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben, BWV 102 (1726)
3. Komm, lass mich nicht länger warten from the Cantata
Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172 (1714)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe/cor anglais), Helen Tunstall (harp), Andrew Watts (counter-tenor), Claire Seaton (soprano), William Stafford and Tom Verity (clarinets/bass clarinets) and Ben Fullbrook (marimba)
Total Time 53:12
guide, including translations. There are biographies of all the players and many photographs.
Introduction by Melinda Maxwell:
The myth of Orpheus and his music has occupied Sir Harrison Birtwistle (universally known as Harry) for most of his life, and the 26 Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and counter-tenor are a further comment in miniature on that myth. They are a re-telling of the story, and the mystery and power that surrounds an imagined music of Orpheus; music that represents a combination of the ethereal - Apollo - and the earthly - Dionysius; music that seduced creation itself with its power of expression.
The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, known to Harry for a long time, gradually became part of the composition process, and as the music was being written certain words and phrases from those sonnets seemed to clarify and strengthen the meaning of the music.
In time, Harry found that for some of the Elegies, a phrase was not enough. In Elegies 11, 13 and 14 the sonnets are set for voice in their entirety. The voice part is for counter -tenor and written for Andrew Watts. In Elegies 17, 20 and 26 portions of a sonnet are sung. For the remaining twenty Elegies, a phrase taken from a sonnet is written at the end of the instrumental music. For example, Elegy 12 (CD track 16) is fast, manic, rhythmic and repetitive, and the written words are the penultimate line of Sonnet number 5 from Rilke's first set: "the lyre's bars do not constrain his hands". As an aside these words add further meaning to the music, and the music evokes the atmosphere of the words.
Early on in the compositional process, Harry asked me about unusual sounds on the oboe, sounds encompassing harmonics and multiphonics (combinations of sounds that speak together forming chords that have unusual pitch formations and are mostly non-diatonic). I played some to him and wrote down those he liked. He particularly liked pitches that transformed and hung into multiphonics In Elegy 7 these sounds are used almost exclusively, to produce a music that is eerie and other-worldly, finishing with Rilke's words "[He emerged like] ore from the stone's silence". In the very first Elegy based around the note E, Birtwistle uses a double harmonic of an open fifth on E to splice, enrich and delve inside the sound, reaching further depths of expression. Rilke's words for this stark opening are "A tree has risen. Oh pure transcendence!".
Three of the Elegies use metronomes, and these give out a mechanical, inevitable, sense to the music. Elegy 25 uses two metronome pulses at slightly different speeds; Rilke's words are "Does time, the wrecker, really exist?".
The idea for the piece began in the late 1970s when Harry and I and the harpist Helen Tunstall were working at the National Theatre in London, and he expressed the wish to write a piece for oboe and harp. The first draft was written for the 2003 Cheltenham Festival, although not all the Elegies were completed and it was still a work in progress. Certain revisions and further additions ensued, and a longer version appeared in the 2004 Cheltenham Festival. Betty Freeman paid for the commission and Heinz and Ursula Holliger gave the world première with Andrew Watts at the Lucerne Festival in September 2004. The London première was given by myself, Helen and Andrew in October 2004 at the South Bank.
Throughout many rehearsals and subsequent performances in the UK and at the Holland (2006) and Bregenz (2007) Festivals, Harry offered further insights into our interpretations of phrase, nuance, pace and dynamics, and this recording is the culmination of this entire process. It is a piece full of contrasting voices, from music that is by turns warm, tender, almost wistful, and also bold, relentless, sometimes violent. Each Elegy speaks with its own voice, and such is the power of the composer's invention one feels that many more could follow.
Melinda Maxwell was born in London and read music at York University and studied in Germany with Ingo Goritzki and Helmut Winschermann.
She has performed as soloist at many festivals including Edinburgh, Aldeburgh and Cheltenham and abroad at the Holland and Aarhus Festivals. She has given many recitals and is frequently heard on BBC Radio 3. Over the years many works have been written for Melinda, including Music for Mel and Nora by Simon Bainbridge, Nicholas Maw's Little Concert for oboe and chamber orchestra, and Pulse Sampler by Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Simon Holt has written Banshee, Sphinx, and Disparate for solo oboe, which she premièred in October 2008 and was the first piece to launch the opening of London's new King's Place concert hall.
Melinda is also an accomplished composer. Among her pieces are Pibroch and Song for Sidney for solo oboe, a work for double-reed ensemble, Crane Dance, and various ensemble pieces with strings. Melinda's previous solo CD Melinda Maxwell in Manchester: Music for Oboe from the RNCM was released on Dutton Recordings and was CD of the month for BBC Music magazine.
In addition to her work as a chamber musician and recitalist, she is principal oboe of the Endymion Ensemble and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and also performs regularly as principal with the London Sinfonietta, the Hilliard Ensemble, and for film sessions with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. She is also a member of the improvisation group Notes Inegales.
She has taught at the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College in London and has been giving master-classes at the Dartington International Summer School since 1992. She also coaches at the Britten-Pears and National Youth Orchestra summer courses. She is Consultant in Woodwind Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
"Miss Maxwell was sheerly beautiful throughout..... so alive as to make one hold one's breath for every little happening" The Times
Helen Tunstall was born in London, and studied at the Royal College of Music with Marisa Robles and Fiona Hibbert. She is principal harpist of the London Sinfonietta, the chamber group Endymion, and the Orchestra of St. John's Smith Square, and leads a busy freelance career playing solo, chamber and orchestral music with all the major London orchestras and ensembles.
Performances in the year of this recording have included the BBC Proms, South Bank, Barbican, Aldeburgh, King's Place, Bregenz, Krakow and St Paul Minneapolis festivals, and appearances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Lontano, Orchestra of St.John's Smith Square, London Sinfonietta, and Endymion.
She is a top London studio player recording classical, contemporary, film, TV and commercial music. As well as the Orpheus Elegies, her recent recordings include works by Tarik O'Regan for Collegium, chamber works by Silvina Milstein, Among Angels with The Sixteen, and songs with Chris Botti for the Columbia label. She has worked on films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wallace and Gromit, Lord of the Rings, Batman, Secrets and Lies, Notes on a Scandal, The Golden Compass, Flushed Away, and with artisits such as Robbie Williams, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Amy Winehouse, Il Divo, Leona Lewis, and for the X Factor on TV.
Helen is a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music.
Andrew Watts was born in Middlesex and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Geoffrey Mitchell.
His operatic engagements include appearances with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, English National Opera, and Glyndebourne. Foreign engagements include the Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro La Fenice, and the Vienna, Dresden, Batignano and Montepulciano Festivals. His repertoire includes Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, Arsamenes in Xerxes, the title role in Orlando, the title role in Leonardo Vinci's Artaserse, the Sorceress and Second Witch in Dido and Aeneas, Nutrice in L'Incoronzione di Poppea, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, Omar in The Death of Klinghoffer, and Bishop Baldwin in Gawain and the Green Knight. He has taken part in many world premières including two by Birtwistle - The Last Supper and The Minotaur.
Andrew Watts' concert engagements include appearances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Los Angeles and Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestras, and at festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne, Lausanne and Edinburgh. His concert repertoire includes Judas Maccabeus, Jephtha, Solomon, Messiah, St John Passion, and the world premières of Unsuk Chin's Cantatrix Sopranica and Birtwistle's The Shadow of Night as well as the Orpheus Elegies.
He features on recordings for ASV of Boyce's Ode for St Cecilia's Day and David's Lamentation with the Hanover Band, and was heard in Sally Potter's film Orlando. He broadcasts regularly, and television appearances include a cameo as Kathleen Ferrier in William and Mary.
"The range of musical processes and the power with which Birtwistle invests the wtriting is extraordinary. The pieces seem like snapshots from different perspectives of some vast, barely graspable musical object... This is a fabulously committed, expressively pliable performance, and the arrangements of three arias from Bach cantatas that Birtwistle made as a companion piece... is the perfect complement." Andrew Clements, BBC Music Magazine
"All three performers, in recordings that balance exemplary clarity of focus with finely sculpted detail, are wholly 'inside' the piece's flexible yet inexorable formal design, which the composer describes in the admirably detailed booklet notes as 'like postcards with cryptic text'." Arnold Whittall, Gramophone
"Ranging from the Stravinskyan, machine-like ticking of Elegy 8 and the hard-edged, flinty beauty of Elegy 7 to the restless discontinuity of Elegy 12 and the metronomic variances of Elegy 25, these vignettes prove to be absolutely compelling. The pairing of long-standing musical colleagues Maxwell and Tunstall, from both the London Sinfonietta and the Endymion Ensemble, is ideal. The silvery legato, skittering semiquaver runs and archaic-sounding multiphonics of Maxwell contrast with Tunstall's resonant, deeply seductive timbres. Andrew Watts ... negotiates the occasionally vertiginous melodic leaps with absolute assurance, at the same time convincing you this is some of the most exquisite vocal music in the composer's entire output."
Peter Quinn, International Record Review
"They are like enchanted preludes... Enchantingly performed here." Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
"With the three artists on this recording Birtwistle has the good fortune to have his music presented with all the intellect, sensitivity and passionate artistry he could wish for." Edwin Roxburgh, Double Reed News You can see the whole review here.
"The piece has an earthly duration of 40 minutes, but its temporal dimensions feel grander." Philip Clark, The Wire
"It takes time and a number of hearings, with text, to get a grip of the inner meaning of these Elegies, but the first impressions are not of 'difficult' music by any stretch. Enigmatic yes, and filled with complicated meaning and message, but so is any good poem... Altogether this is an unusual and rather special disc, which fans of the oboe, of British contemporary music and of Birtwistle should certainly acquire." Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
"The performances are well-nigh perfect, but the most affecting of the three is Melinda Maxwell. Her oboe soars and leaps with tragic intensity over the deep thrummings of Helen Tunstall's harp." Telegraph Saturday Review
Critic Hilary Finch selected this as one of her CD recordings of the year (2009) on BBC Radio 3.