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Over a two-week period, the Barbican is hosting a series of performances to mark the 80th birthday of Harrison Birtwistle. Having started with his opera Gawain last week, it will be taking in instrumental and vocal music, together with a concert performance of his opera Yan Tan Tethera to form a broad retrospective of his work.
As part of the series, this London Symphony Orchestra concert included Earth Dances, dating from 1986. In retrospect, this is one of Birtwistle’s key works. Dense, powerful and brow-beatingly dark, it draws from the spinal cord of inspiration that is central to Birtwistle’s sound and thinking.
At an unbroken 35 minutes, Earth Dances forms a formidable single span of music. Rising out of the deepest sounds of the orchestra, its dances rarely feel as if they have shaken off their roots in the earth. The work clearly takes the brooding atmosphere of a pagan rite from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; and from Ravel’s La Valse comes its overall shape, where dances move in and out of a haze. But the sound of Birtwistle – the screeching high wind, the heavy brass chords chained to the ground – is entirely his own, and it is his ability to create a sound-world and not let go that makes him also a redoubtable composer of opera.
In this performance by the LSO and Daniel Harding, Earth Dances was half an hour of brooding orchestral virtuosity. After Harding took his bow, Birtwistle mopped the conductor’s brow.
The choice of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto as the single, massive counterweight to the Birtwistle in the second half was unexpected but strangely inspired. Both works venture into a place of dark shadows: at least, the Brahms usually feels like that. Here, Harding tapped into a different mood of consoling intimacy soon after the opening and Paul Lewis, the soloist, was lyrical rather than heroic. At first, the piano did not sound a match for Brahms’ weighty orchestra but Lewis was planning a longer game and the finale rose to a lofty conclusion in which pianist and orchestra grew to become equal players.