As people live longer, the octogenarian composer will cease to be a rarity. To mark Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday the Nash Ensemble devised a concert that placed his music alongside works by Elliott Carter, who died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 103, and John Adams, a mere stripling at 67 – a choice governed no doubt by the need to fit the event within this season’s “American Series”.
To date, the most prominent composer to have delivered a major score at such an advanced age is Verdi, whose Falstaff was given its premiere a few months short of his 80th birthday. But perhaps Birtwistle will match him: the flow of new works shows no sign of abating and a new piano concerto, Responses, is due to go on tour to Munich, London, Porto and Boston in the autumn.
The highlight of this programme was Birtwistle’s very recent The Moth Requiem. Ostensibly, this is a musical tribute to a moth that was caught below a piano lid and heard lightly strumming the strings, as recounted in Robin Blaser’s “The Moth Poem”. Birtwistle, though, has wider issues in mind, adding the names of a dozen species of moth that are now extinct and giving his setting a timeless aura reminiscent of so many of his operas.
Here is a sound-world that seems to stretch back centuries. A small chorus of women’s voices (the BBC Singers, expert in Birtwistle’s often high and challenging writing) chants the words, syllable by syllable, as though in some ritual, similar in its hieratic feel to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms or Oedipus Rex, and the accompaniment is provided by the ancient instruments of flute and three harps. What Birtwistle has fashioned is a miniature mausoleum, crafted in cool, granite slabs and echoing to the lament of the high priestesses of the species.
Alongside the severity of the Birtwistle, Carter’s music – his whimsical Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello, the mercurial Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux for flute and clarinet – sounded almost easy-going. The Nash Ensemble’s seven string players then came together for the septet version of Adams’s popular Shaker Loops in an invigorating performance conducted by Nicholas Kok. Stravinsky’s motor rhythms are never far away there either. His influence still casts a remarkably long shadow.