Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Music

Lisa Batiashvili, Adrian Brendel, Till Fellner, Amy Freston, Roderick Williams


This album of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s chamber music and songs, mostly of recent vintage, is issued as the innovative Great British composer approaches his 80th birthday. It features an exceptional cast. Heard together and separately is the trio of Austrian pianist Till Fellner, Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili and English cellist Adrian Brendel. They are joined by London-born singers Amy Freston and Roderick Williams. The compositions include “Bogenstrich” written in 2006 as a short piece in tribute to Alfred Brendel and first played by his son Adrian together with Fellner. It was subsequently expanded into a cycle with the addition of settings of Rilke for baritone, cello and piano. The “Trio” is the newest piece, premiered in 2011, a 16-minute single movement work of elaborate patterning, gestures and responses, for piano, violin and cello. Settings of the writings of US Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), scored for soprano and cello in 1998 and 2000, begin and close the album. As Bayan Northcott writes in the booklet, “These concentrated songs demand the utmost of their performers in precision, expression and timing. As in Webern’s settings, the few words and notes on the page can seem to imply whole worlds of thought and feeling”. This highly-concentrated chamber-scale expressivity is felt throughout the entire album, recorded at Munich’s famed Herkulessaal, and produced by Manfred Eicher.

Dieses Album mit Kammermusik und Liedern von Sir Harrison Birtwistle, größtenteils jüngeren Entstehungsdatums, erscheint zu einem Zeitpunkt, da der 80. Geburtstag des innovativen britischen Komponisten näher rückt. Es präsentiert eine außergewöhnliche Besetzung: Im Trio und einzeln sind der Pianist Till Fellner, die georgische Geigerin Lisa Batiashvili und der englische Cellist Adrian Brendel zu hören, zu ihnen gesellen sich außerdem die in London geborenen Sänger Amy Freston und Roderick Williams. Unter den Kompositionen findet sich auch „Bogenstrich“, geschrieben 2006 als kurzer Tribut an Alfred Brendel und seinerzeit zuerst von Brendels Sohn Adrian zusammen mit Fellner gespielt. Er wurde später zu einem Zyklus mit Rilke-Vertonungen für Bariton, Cello und Klavier ausgeweitet. Das „Trio“ ist das jüngste hier enthaltene Stück, es hatte seine Uraufführung 2011: ein 16-minütiger Einzelsatz voller kunstvoller Muster, Gesten und Erwiderungen für Klavier, Geige und Cello. Vertonungen der Lyrik der US-amerikanischen Dichterin Lorine Niedecker (1903 – 1970), 1998 und 2000 für Klavier und Cello geschrieben, eröffnen und beschließen das Album. „Diese konzentrierten Lieder verlangen das Äußerste an Präzision, Ausdruck und Timing von den Interpreten. Wie in Weberns Partituren können auch die wenigen Noten und Worte auf einer Seite ganze Gedanken- und Gefühlswelten implizieren“, schreibt Bayan Northcott im Beiheft. Diese hoch konzentrierte Expressivität im Kammerformat spürt man durch das gesamte Album, das im Herkulessaal in München aufgenommen und von Manfred Eicher produziert wurde.
Featured Artists Recorded

August 2012, Herkulessaal der Münchner Residenz

Original Release Date


  • Three Settings of Lorine Niedecker
    (Harrison Birtwistle, Lorine Niedecker)
  • 1I. Always north of him01:19
  • 2II. I was the solitary plover01:42
  • 3III. As I shook dust from my father's door01:17
  • 4Trio
    (Harrison Birtwistle)
  • Bogenstrich - Meditations on a poem of Rilke
    (Harrison Birtwistle)
  • 5I. Liebes-Lied 106:03
  • 6II. Lied ohne Worte06:16
  • 7III. Variationen06:22
  • 8IV. Wie eine Fuge06:19
  • 9V. Liebes-Lied 206:26
  • Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker
    (Harrison Birtwistle, Lorine Niedecker)
  • 10I. There's a better shine01:01
  • 11II. My friend tree00:48
  • 12III. Along the river01:34
  • 13IV. Hear where her snowgrave is01:01
  • 14V. How the white gulls02:02
  • 15VI. My life02:13
  • 16VII. Paul01:43
  • 17VIII. O late fall01:09
  • 18IX. Sleep's dream01:55
Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington, Lancashire, in 1934. The winner of the Grawemeyer Composition Prize (1988) and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1995), he is generally considered Great Britain's leading composer in the generation following Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Yet he has never joined the dominant avant-garde trends of contemporary music, apart from the open-minded aesthetic of the so-called 'Manchester Group'. Magic and myth, ritualistic creative processes and a quest for origins have defined his music, which places severe demands on the performers. The conductor Elgar Howarth once said that he had never laid hands on more difficult works than those of his fellow countryman. The reason may have to do with Birtwistle's creative method, which he once described as follows: 'Highly polished surfaces are dangerous. You can only see your own reflection in them. I have tried to keep a sort of roughness in what I do. If I was a sculptor, I would want to see the chisel marks.'
Pierre Boulez also sensed this in the music of his British colleague, calling it wild and unruly, very free in expression, its gestures indicative of a sharply etched personality: 'It goes its own way, relentlessly and obstinately; it pursues its purpose with a sort of quiet implacability; it reaches its intended destination via phases of extreme tension or hiatuses of maximum intensity; the choice and heightened use of timbres and registers magnify its expressive power. These features result in music that is not easily accessible and calls for mental acumen and alertness. In other words, it is music that one has to earn. That, to my mind, is a very fine badge of honour.'
The trio for violin, cello and piano, though once a popular genre, did not bring forth many remarkable examples in 20th-century music. It constitutes an exception in the music of Harrison Birtwistle, who rarely deploys traditional instrumental formats. Nonetheless, here he has solved the time-honoured problem of the piano trio – how to strike a balance between the strings and the powerful keyboard instrument – by alternating the instruments or having the strings accompanied by unrelated figurations from the piano.
In contrast, vocal works with instrumental accompaniment are nothing unusual in Birtwistle's catalogue, though the musical procedures are driven to extremes. One impressive complex in this genre are his settings of lines by the American lyric poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), the most remarkable modernist of her generation. Almost Webernian in their brevity and concentration, these taut epigrammatic pieces were written for the 90th birthday of the composer Elliott Carter and later tied together with several other works to form what Birtwistle calls a 'bouquet'. In their concentrated form, these miniatures demand the utmost in precision, expression and sense of time from the performers.
The third work on our recording, with the initially cryptic sounding title Bogenstrich – Meditation on a Poem of Rilke, derives from a 'song without words' composed in 2006 for the 75th birthday of Alfred Brendel and performed by Brendel's son, the cellist Adrian Brendel, and the pianist Till Fellner. Later Birtwistle recast it into a commissioned work for Adrian Brendel. Finally he again elaborated it in several stages into a cycle for baritone, cello and piano, integrating a setting of Rilke's Liebeslied into the work: 'And yet everything which touches us, you and me, / takes us together like a single bow, / drawing out from two strings but one voice'. In this version it forms the centrepiece of the Birtwistle works on our album, which was recorded in the Herkules Saal of Munich’s Residenz in August 2011.