Here are two reviews of the Melos Ensemble’s London performance of Birtwistle’s Tragoedia and Davies’s In Nomines, from December 1965.
Ahead with Stockhausen
New works by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, incomplete versions of which had been played at the Wardour Castle summer school, were given first London performances on December 3 at the Commonwealth Institute by the Melos Ensemble under Lawrence Foster. Maxwell Davies’s Four in Nomines were separated by his exquisite instrumentations of keyboard ‘In Nomines’ by Taverner, Bull and Blitheman. The new poised poignantly and instructively between the old. Maxwell Davies’s material is derived from Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’ and he exploits it with great ingenuity. His third ‘In Nomine,’ a six-part canon, set up a structural dance-like beat against which the rhythmic patterns of the canons appear at their most effective.
Birtwistle’s Tragoedia is a fierce agon between instrumental groups and solos. Thus, the cello, perhaps the most powerful voice, roars powerfully for itself, yet also supports the other strings in their encounters with the fearsome ostinati of the woodwinds. Instrumental capacities are stretched to their uttermost and their precarious straining, as of the just possible, recalls the Grosse Fugue.
Although Lawrence Foster and his players did not generate quite the same tension as they did at Wardour Castle, when the work created something of a sensation, the bold ‘Tragoedia’ shows how it is still possible to write music whose Expressionist fervour is a masterly blend of ‘blood-boltered barbarism’ and tenderness.
Patrick Carnegy [who presumably attended the WCSS performance]
The Observer Weekend Review, ‘The Arts’, December 12, 1965, 25.
Last night’s concert at the Commonwealth Institute, part of a 4-day festival of contemporary music, presented a broad conspectus of modern instrumental music, some of it British, including a set of ‘In Nomines’ by Peter Maxwell Davies and the first London performance of Harrison Birtwhistle’s [sic] heralded ‘Tragoedia.’ Birtwhistle wrote his ‘Tragoedia’ for the Melos Ensemble, and the ensemble gave its first performance in August in the rather more evocative surroundings of Wardour Castle. By all accounts that was a memorable occasion, with Birtwhistle’s powerfully symmetrical structure and brilliantly conceived writing for wind, strings, and percussion creating an unforgettable impression in the context of the summer school. The test of the work, however, was that it should be able to stand transplantation ot the less hothouse atmosphere of London, and this, last night, it most certainly did, in a performance by the Melos which I would have rated outstanding, if I had not been told that the Wardour one was even better.
One doubts whether an intimate knowledge of Greek drama, around which the ‘Tragoedia’ is formulated, is at all necessary for an appreciation of the music; it is, quite plainly, an intense satisfying structural and dramatic entity, with the complex techniques of strophe and antistrophe, and so on, take their place with no sense of strain. This, I know, is a rather unhelpful dismissal of the whole aesthetic basis of the composition; but after only a single performance I find myself unable to analyse my pleasure and satisfaction in any more complex terms.
Maxwell Davies’s ‘In Nomines’ proved more assimilable at first acquaintance. Three of the pieces are instrumentations of works by Taverner, Bull and Blitheman, and although the composer asserts that they were made only to arrive at a suitable state of mind for his own pieces, the results are both enchanting and illuminating. The new movements affirm Maxwell Davies’s ability to write striking music in pre-Renaissance terms without indulging in mock archaisms which would be both insignificant and out of place. The ‘In Nomine’ for Britten’s fiftieth birthday, which seemed to start with an intonation from the Taverner piece, was particularly moving in this respect.
The Guardian, Saturday, December 4, 1965, 6