One thing I like about Harrison Birtwistle is that, rarely among composers of a more radical bent, he never feels he has to apologise for writing for orchestra. His orchestras feel and sound like orchestras – although often cleverly reimagined – and his ideas are scaled to the orchestra’s size. There’s something thrilling about seeing a Birtwistle orchestra come to life in all its many facets – the high-tensile strings, the jabbering winds, the pit-and-pendulum percussion, the deep-diving brass – and being shown the clear and essential role for every instrument in a massive poem of time and space.
And the orchestra for Deep Time is Mahlerian in size, including double tubas, double contrabass clarinets, upright piano, soprano sax, quadruple brass and more. There’s something to be said for just listening to a brilliant compositional mind hold all of that in play and never once let it stop making sense. (The clarity of the Staatskappelle Berlin’s playing, and Barenboim’s conducting have to take some credit here too.)
Others have deconstructed and dismantled the orchestra more thoroughly than this, but Birtwistle is not interested in modding this elite musical machine. No extended techniques, no musique concrète instrumentale, no discourses of failure or compromise; just orchestral music making the old-fashioned way. I offer this as a point very much in Birtwistle’s favour: there is much to be said for saying new things with old words, and few do it as well as he.
Yet it does also present a problem, since those new things Birtwistle is saying are no longer as new as they once were, even if they may speak as well as they always did. Deep Time is undoubtedly a highly crafted piece of work, yet for all its accomplishment it never felt as rawly inspired as The Triumph of Time or Earth Dances, its two precursors in a now-completed orchestral trilogy. ‘All the familiar fingerprints, polished nicely’ was Philip Clark’s immediate response on Twitter, and even after listening a second time it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Why does this piece need to be in the world, I wondered. No reason, necessarily; it filled its time well enough, and far better than most. Yet I couldn’t help but think back nostalgically to those days when Birtwistle’s music blowtorched through the British musical establishment; less perfectly formed, undoubtedly, but more urgent. We live in an age of colossal cultural excess, in which the production of new works parallels our mania for consumption. As Birtwistle’s giant orchestra told its giant tale I still had to wonder: for what?
Watch Barenboim and the Staatskappelle Berlin play Deep Time at the Proms through iPlayer, until 15 August.