Harrison Birtwistle: Gawain

Harrison Birtwistle: Gawain

NMC Recordings
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Birtwistle's fascination with myth and ritual has influenced many of his works and this opera, its libretto by David Harsent, is based on the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a plot featuring castles, eerie nocturnal apparitions, evil magical powers, amorous entanglements and a singing decapitated head.

This production of Gawain for the Royal Opera House, recorded by BBC Radio 3, was supported by the Arts Council of England, The Friends of Covent Garden, The John S Cohen Foundation and The Po-Shing Woo Charitable Foundation. It was originally released on Collins Classics.

Marie Angel soprano  Morgan le Fay
Anne Howells mezzo soprano  Lady de Hautdesert
Francois Le Roux baritone Gawain
John Tomlinson bass baritone The Green Knight / Bertilak de Hautdesert
Penelope Walmsley-Clark soprano Guinevere
Richard Greager tenor Arthur
Omar Ebrahim baritone The Fool
Alan Ewing bass Agravain
John Marsden tenor Ywain
Kevin Smith countertenor Bishop Baldwin

The Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Elgar Howarth conductor



GRAMOPHONE AWARD WINNER 1996 (Originally released on Collins Classics)

'Howarth and his fine cast (John Tomlinson, Francois Le Roux, Marie Angel) provide a definitive experience.' The Financial Times

‘Tomlinson’s emotionally charged, rich-toned account is a tour de force. The opera’s final climax is truly terrifying’ Opera Now

‘Everything is first rate: the source – medieval epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Harrison Birtwislte – composer and master of orchestration; skilled librettist David Hersant; a stellar cast; the Royal Opera Orchestra under Elgar Howarth; excellent sound; and comprehensive notes.’ The Whole Note

‘Birtwistle’s score is unforgiving and dense, forever undulating beneath the libretto like a plate tectonic, spewing forth a lava of accents when he necessitates the prominence of the brass percussion to accentuate the dramatic moment.’ Edge on the Net

‘High expressionist, high modernist and quite compelling. Certainly it is one of Birtwistle’s major offerings. The Royal Opera performance is exceptional.’ Classical-Modern Music Review

‘John Tomlinson is sonorous and imposing in the dual roles of the Green Knight and Bertilak; whenever he is singing he is the centre of attention. […] expertly done with no weak links, Elgar Howarth keeps a firm hand on the tiller. […] These performers make an excellent case for the Birtwistle’s difficult yet fascinating opera.’ International Record Review

‘On NMC, John Tomlinson as the Green Knight has peerless authority and you can hear his every word.’ Gramophone

‘There’s a deep, grainy quality to his [Tomlinson’s] voice that catches the sorrow and cynicism of the Green Knight perfectly. […] Another strength of this recording is the weirdly intense vocal sound of Marie Angel as the scheming Mogran le Fay, which lends a glint of strangeness to the doom-laden atmosphere. […] As for the orchestral playing, it catches both the dark and fatalistic quality of the score and its moments of beauty.’ BBC Music Magazine

‘[…] une réelle aventure musicale, tantôt ténébreuse et sombre mais non dénuée d’humour et d’ironie. […] La musique est d’une invention croissante, démultipliée.’ ClicMag

‘The orchestra is superb in its relentlessness, especially the terrifying tubas and brutal percussion. The sound of the Green Knight’s axe is graphic – a deadly swishing, whistling sound. The recording, originally on Collins, production from 1994, is vivid and spacious’ American Record Guide

'thanks to the enterprising NMC label, Birtwistle's blistering score here comes vividly across especially when all concerned throw themselves into it so wholeheartedly.' Classical Music Magazine


Thanks to the trusts and foundations that have supported this release as part of NMC’s Anniversary Opera Series:

The John S Cohen Foundation
The Finzi Trust
The Nicholas John Trust
The Monument Trust
The N Smith Charitable Settlement
Surrey Square Trust

and to the donors who contributed through NMC’s 25th anniversary Opera Appeal including:

Jonathan Goldstein
Paul Henderson
Martyn Leighton
Robert McFarland
John Summerscales
Moya & John Tomlinson

Produced in association with BBC Radio 3


This recording of the revised production of Gawain contains the shortened version of the Turning of the Seasons section and was recorded live by BBC Radio 3 on 20 April 1994 at the performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was originally released on Collins Classics.

DAVID GALLAGHER Producer for BBC Radio 3
MARTIN PAGE Sound Balance for BBC Radio 3
JOHN TIMPERLEY Remixed for Collins Classics
VERONICA SLATER Producer for Collins Classics

(P) 1996 BBC © 2014 NMC Recordings Ltd

Catalogue number: NMC D200
Release Date: 19 May 2014