Gramophone, Arnold Whittall
This satisfying compilation spans more than 40 years of Birtwistle, from a piano piece written in his mid-teens (Oockooing Bird) to Five Distances for wind quintet (1992), which foreshadows the capriciousness and dramatic urgency of the opera which followed close on its heels, The Second Mrs Kong.
Anyone who believes that Birtwistle’s music has always been the same should play Linoi (1968) immediately after the rather impersonal Refrains and Choruses for wind quintet (1957). Written for clarinet and a very sparingly used piano, Linoi has all Birtwistle’s archetypal lyric melancholy, and the attempts to escape from that melancholy, although futile, have great dramatic force. Not all the later works are on this level: for example, An Interrupted Endless Melody (1991) sustains a tone of plaintive lyricism and, despite sharply pointed piano punctuations of the oboe melody, it seems almost aimless as a result, especially when all three versions are played. But it is the most extended work, Five Distances, whose strongly characterised material and resourcefully evolving form reveal Birtwistle at his finest. This performance does it justice.
…most of the miniatures on this new release are not currently available elsewhere, and the Galliard Ensemble versions, recorded with pinpoint clarity, can be warmly recommended.
It’s particularly good to find the smaller labels turning their attention to Birtwistle’s earlier chamber pieces, which are all-too-rarely heard today.