Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim review – magnificent UK Birtwistle premiere | Music

Harrison Birtwistle once said that he feels that he is constantly composing the same piece, that each new work makes a different journey through the same mass of endlessly renewable musical material to find fresh perspectives within it. As if to underline that, his latest orchestral work, Deep Time, completes a trilogy begun more than 40 years ago with The Triumph of Time, and continued in the mid-1980s with Earth Dances. Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin gave the first performance of the new 25-minute piece last month in Berlin, and brought it to the Proms in the second of their pair of concerts during the opening weekend, which featured both of Elgar’s symphonies.

Deep Time is dedicated to the memory of Peter Maxwell Davies, who died last year, and whom Birtwistle had known since they studied together in Manchester in the 1950s. The title comes from the notion first put forward by geologist James Hutton in the 18th century of how endless accretion and erosion have shaped and reshaped landscapes over unfathomably long periods of time. If that connects with the idea of instrumental strata, which Birtwistle explored in Earth Dances, then the sense of the work as a slowly evolving processional, marking out and measuring time as it goes along, harks right back to The Triumph of Time, too.

Birtwistle may use an orchestra in which low-pitched instruments – tubas, bass and contrabass clarinets, contrabassoons – are emphasised, but the landscapes that the music traverses are wonderfully varied and coloured. There are pulsing Stravinskyan repetitions, cascades of chattering woodwind, Boulez-like toccatas of tuned percussion and long-limbed solos, led off of by soprano saxophone, which float over transparent webs of strings. But there’s little of the eruptive violence of Earth Dances, just a single gong-laden climax before the end is signalled in a blaze of tubular bells. It’s an immensely powerful, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful work, one of…

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