Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows: review of new CD(February 2002)
Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows: review of new CD
"Patterns of loss"
Review of the new recording of Harrison Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows
by Andrew Clements
Classical CD of the Week
(1 February 2002)
Claron McFadden / Arditti Quartet / Nash Ensemble / Reinbert de Leeuw
Click here to purchase this Gramophone Award-winning CD from Amazon
At over 63 minutes, Pulse Shadows, the Meditations on Paul Celan for soprano, string quartet and ensemble, is Harrison Birtwistle's longest work for the concert hall. It reached its final, 18-movement form in 1996, and is almost twice as lengthy as his orchestral pieces such as Earth Dances and Exody. The music can also be construed as two independent works, the Nine Movements for string quartet and the Nine Settings of Celan. But when they are interleaved, as they are on this very fine recording, they become the multilayered work that the composer intended.
Birtwistle first discovered the poetry of Celan in the late 1980s, and identified with its concise, almost fragmentary quality. Romanian Jewish by birth but French by cultural adoption, Celan wrote in German, inheriting the tradition of the expressionists and using it to attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust and its aftermath. Birtwistle's settings may be performed in the original German or in Michael Hamburger's English translations, as they are on this recording, though one of the settings, Todtnauberg, which is concerned with Celan's attempted reconciliation with the Nazi sympathiser and philosopher Heidegger, uses both languages.
In 1991 Birtwistle made his first settings of these texts, which were performed separately, and almost simultaneously began working on a cycle of pieces for string quartet; over the next few years the two projects became inextricably woven together.
Birtwistle has revealed that his model for Pulse Shadows was Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître, a nine-movement work in which the vocal numbers (settings of the poetry of René Char) are interspersed with instrumental commentaries. But the relationship between the quartet and vocal movements in Birtwistle's work is more elliptical: there are no thematic links between the two cycles, yet they clearly share the same emotional landscape. In some sense they also represent the songs that Birtwistle did not compose - the settings that he felt could not be made of Celan's most searing and personal Holocaust imagery. But they are not songs without words in the conventional sense. The relationship is much more tangential, except in the final quartet movement, to which Birtwistle gives the title Todesfuge, a reference to Celan's most famous poem.
The result of this intricate patterning is a work of extraordinary weight and emotional complexity. Claron McFadden is commanding in all of them, just as the Arditti are masterly in their management of the quicksilver switches of mood and the finely specified articulations in the quartet movements. Pulse Shadows is one of Birtwistle's finest achievements and, like all great music, it repays the close attention that a superb recording such as this one allows.
Reproduced by kind permission of The Guardian and Andrew Clements.
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