The firebrands have become the establishment. Wasn’t it always so? There was a time when Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies – the three “Manchester School” composers of the 1960s – used to shock us. Now they tickle us with their grandfatherly wiles. At least, that is how it seemed at this quasi-family celebration, a veritable “Rule Britannia” of classical music. After a long period in which the three went separate ways, almost to the point of falling out, it is good to see them linking arms in old age. This concert, vividly executed by the Nash Ensemble and soprano Claire Booth, demonstrated that they still have plenty of vitality, even if their touch has softened and their gaze lengthened.
The only new work was Birtwistle’s Fantasia Upon All the Notes for Flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. The title points to Purcell, the instrumentation to Ravel, but Birtwistle typically goes his own way. His 15-minute fantasy is full of powerful, albeit sometimes convoluted arguments generating torrents of motifs, and there’s a wonderfully pungent rhythmic section with deliberately clumsy syncopations and offbeat accents for harp and flute. It’s astonishing how fertile Sir Harry’s mind remains. This must be one of his most playful and digestible pieces, alternately earthy and thorny – much like the composer himself.
The Fantasia was the stand-out work in a programme ranging from Turnage’s Returning, an old-fashioned slice of English pastoralism for string sextet, to song cycles by Colin Matthews (The Island) and Jonathan Harvey (Song Offerings), both of whom sounded so transfixed by the enigmatic mysticism of their texts, respectively by Rilke and Rabindranath Tagore, that they failed to provide an adequate musical response.
Goehr’s sinewy, sometimes bittersweet Clarinet Quintet set out purposefully but soon started to meander, like an academic who likes his own voice and doesn’t know when to stop. Max’s The Last Island for string sextet was another of his Orkney-inspired tone-paintings, in which the sounds of the shoreline interact with the elements to produce a menacing peace – characterised by quizzical glissandos, restless tremolandos and moody threnodies.