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BBC Music Magazine

Performance 5 stars
Recording 4 stars

'Already a familiar sound from the composer’s Earth Dances of 1986, the opera’s violent orchestral melos echoes in the memory long after Gawain’s journeys to and from the Green Chapel are over. No less persistent for the listener is a lingering satisfaction that such a uniquely personal musical style has found the exact means of its own dramatic expression.

John Tomlinson and François Le Roux quicken the Green Knight and Gawain into such lifelike reality that the need of the plotters – Marie Angel’s Morgan le Fay and Anne Howells’s Lady de Hautdesert – to wreck the complacent Arthurian court becomes less a mythical given than a genuine ethical drama.'
Collins Classicss [70412]
An opera in two acts
Libretto by David Harsent
based on the Middle English romance
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
commissioned by The Royal Opera

The Cast

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

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Elgar Howarth - conductor

'Gawain marks a climactic point in Sir Harrison Birtwistle's output, combining dramatic strategies from his four earlier stage works with a clearer narrative than any of them and drawing together aspects of his musical language that he had been exploring in concert works for 15 years or more. It is, I think, his finest dramatic work so far, an opera of compelling power and grandeur.

Opera it most certainly is (none of his previous stage pieces had that designation), and its magnificent opening gesture immediately promises that it will be an epic one... none of the characters in this fable is a rounded personality — Gawain is no verismo opera — each of them is boldly and tellingly portrayed. Morgan is unchanging, venom personified. Arthur, too, does not change: an old soldier, bored with peace but unwilling to emerge from the cosy myth of Camelot. But Gawain matures, from arrogance to bitter self-awareness. Most strikingly of all the Green Knight, the opera's real and profoundly mysterious central character, has music of true lyrical strength and pride at his first challenge, denunciatory eloquence when he spares Gawain's life at their second encounter, telling him that mere cowardice is too small a sin to die for.

It is an opera whose drama often takes place in the wonderfully rich and strange sounds of Birtwistle's orchestra: massive, striding bass-lines, whooping brass, the prominent cimbalom at times almost as central as it once was in Stravinsky's imagination. The solo singers must achieve extremes of intensity to stand out in relief. Among them John Tomlinson is in outstandingly noble voice as the Green Knight and Francois Le Roux... is moving in the title-role. Marie Angel is fearless... as Morgan, Anne Howells a voluptuous Lady de Hautdesert.

The recording brings the voices forward, which helps comprehension of the text, but does not diminish Elgar Howarth's masterly control of the score's burnished splendours. The whole enterprise is a huge achievement, a worthy and commendably prompt recording of one of the most powerful operas of the late twentieth century.'
Recorded live at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden April 20th, 1994
Producers David Gallagher and Veronica Slater
Engineers Martin Page and John Timperley