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Birtwistle's Theseus Game: premieres reviewed

(January 2004)

Harrison Birtwistle's Theseus Game: international premieres reviewed

Premiere performances of Harrison Birtwistle's Theseus Game have revealed a thrilling landmark in the composer’s output, combining his characteristic ritual theatre with an ongoing exploration of multiple perspectives, here realised by a chain of soloists, antiphonal duets, and a pair of ensembles. The work was co-commissioned by the RUHRtriennale, generously supported by Betty Freeman, by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, and by the London Sinfonietta.

Premiered by Ensemble Modern in Duisburg in September, the work received its first UK performance by the London Sinfonietta as the finale of the Huddersfield Festival, both being co-conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Pierre André Valade. The US premiere followed at a Birtwistle portrait concert by Alarm will Sound in New York, and further performances are planned by Ensemble Modern in Berlin and at the Lucerne Festival, by the London Sinfonietta at the South Bank Centre, and by the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. Deutsche Grammophon is to release a live recording of Theseus Game performed by Ensemble Modern, coupled with Earth Dances conducted by Pierre Boulez.

"One solo instrument after another has its spot-lit moment, in prickly engagement with the orchestra, or rather the two mini-orchestras, each with its own conductor, independent but co-ordinated, generating their own frictions… The many episodes are concise, beautifully contrasted, cogent; the structure always holds, rich and fascinating."
Financial Times

"Birtwistle compares the continuous melodic line to the magic thread that Ariadne gives Theseus to lead him out of the labyrinth. The labyrinth itself is presumably the meshing clockworks and intensely intricate textures of the ensemble writing, full of glinting mysterious colours and sometimes violent eruptions of sonority. The melody is the point of reference and finally a means of resolution to what is thrilling instrumental virtuosity within original musical architecture. The performance under Brabbins and Valade was spell-binding."
The Guardian

"This piece will have an impact in every concert hall because it creates its own sonic space…The ensemble builds a labyrinth of expressive, intensely colourful and eloquent sounds of true dramatic quality."
Westfällische Rundschau

"What a marvellous piece it turned out to be… cunningly inter-woven and layered… lucid and darkly compelling."
Daily Telegraph

Birtwistle’s 70th birthday events gather pace with the premiere of his new music theatre piece The Io Passion, opening the Aldeburgh Festival on 11 June and touring to the Almeida Theatre in London and the Bregenz Festival in July. Festival celebrations continue with the BBC Proms, the Lucerne Festival and an autumn festival at the South Bank Centre devoted to his music. Night’s Black Bird for orchestra, a companion piece to The Shadow of Night commissioned by Roche, is to be unveiled in Lucerne by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst (21 August) who also perform it next season in Cleveland and New York. Further performances of the diptych take place in London and Bruges on 5 and 7 November with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi.

For full details of Birtwistle 70th events please visit

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