Harrison Birtwistle – Antiphonies & Harrison’s Clocks

Harrison Birtwistle – Antiphonies & Harrison’s Clocks

‘Some years after Antiphonies, I premiered a huge cycle called Harrison’s Clocks, five pieces based on John Harrison’s 18th-century maritime clocks. Boy, they were hard – millions of notes, with fantastically complicated rhythms travelling at the speed of light. Many other pianists at the time quaked, turned pale and shook their heads. But everything moves on – that was more than 20 years ago, and what’s considered unplayable gradually becomes – well, not exactly easy, but possible. Harry told me that recently teenage pupils at the Purcell School had split the piece up, taken a movement each, and played them to him. On the phone the other day, sorting out some details for our Bath concerts, I mentioned to Harry I was spending the rest of the evening in the company of these fiendish Clocks. I must’ve sounded glum. “But they’re not hard!” he exclaimed in his soft Lancashire burr, trying to cheer me up. “They’re fun.” And I thought, yes, he’s right. Just because they’re complicated doesn’t mean they’re not fun.’

This is one of the most important piano works to have appeared towards the end of the 20th century. After Joanna MacGregor’s exclusive rights expire, every aspiring new music pianist will tackle these five pieces, and they will take their place in the piano repertoire alongside the Ligeti studies, which seemed so impossible at first and are now standard repertoire. There will be other recordings of Harrison’s Clocks, but this is a worthy first.

They were inspired by the Sobel book Longitude, about the painfully prolonged gestation of John Harrison’s sea clocks, now preserved at Greenwich; and the link with Harrison Birtwistle’s shared name. There are five substantial pieces, each starting with a rush of notes down to the bottom of the keyboard. In Clock, I irregular contrary motion and staccato figures are deliberately out of phase. Next a mechanical fantasy with an alarm bell. Clock III variously combines six figures in pairs. Clock IV introduces each of its four sections by repeating the opening signal of the whole work. The last is a toccata with reversed delays between the hands, ending, as each piece does, ‘because the clock-spring has broken down’, as explained in Stephen Pruslin’s helpful notes.

Heard without worrying about all that, they are fascinating and exhilarating virtuoso display pieces. The performances by Joanna MacGregor, and recording, at Dartington, are impeccable, mind-bogglingly so. Enjoyment is enhanced immeasurably by listening with the inexpensive score (Boosey&Hawkes). Although it requires a consummate pianist and musical mathematician to get round these fiendishly complex constructions at the keyboard, exploring some of the patterns with the score (if only at quarter speed and one hand at a time) offers a window into creativity!

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