The primacy of wind instruments in Harrison Birtwistle’s output can stand as much for their quality of primitive pastoral (eg in the opening of The Rite of spring) as for their much-prized neo-classical coolness. In the flute Duets for Storah (Storah was a Neolithic Hebridean ruler) it is the former quality that typically predominates. Beneath the surface of these austere variations in the Scottish “pibroch” tradition, there resides a shape as inevitable and archetypal as that of a prehistoric axe.
It was this instinctive quality, of music moving forward without sense of antecedent and consequent, that marked Refrain and Choruses (1957) for wind quintet as a milestone not only in Birtwistle’s career, but also in the story of postwar British music. The other pieces on this disc either continue its implications, or add appendices, such as the youthful Cuckooing Bird c1951, for piano, which suggests Debussy’s pentatonic preludes as a distant model. Hector’s Dawn and Sad Song likewise show the composer’s gift for whimsical thoughts of one idea (literally themes, in an elemental sense). Verses, An Interrupted Endless Melody and Five Distances connect the main thread of Birtwistle’s thinking with his music now, excellently played on this invaluable collection…..