Cortege is Harrison Birtwistle's completely new reworking of the earlier work Ritual Fragment. The composer wanted to revise and correct the original, but soon discovered that his intentions went much further than a mere revision. What resulted is what you might call the final director’s cut of the piece.
Fourteen virtuoso instrumentalists arrange themselves into a semicircle and a number of them hand round from one to another a continuous, but changing solo line, many of the players thus exploring the roles of both soloist and accompanist within this one piece. A central position on the stage is reserved for whoever is carrying the solo at any one time, creating a fascinating drawn-out dance as players move to the front of the stage and then peregrinate around the outer semicircle as others fill the physical and musical space they have just vacated.
Such an original ritualised game in sound immediately suggests the pre-eminent hand of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who has made such a specialisation of combining ritual, theatre and music through more than half a century of spectacular output. Cortege, written to celebrate the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, is based on a previous piece, Ritual Fragment (1990) – will become a signature piece for the London Sinfonietta. This is only fitting: both pieces are dedicated to the memory of Michael Vyner, the tireless, visionary idealist who was the London Sinfonietta’s first Artistic Director and who died in 1989 at the age of 46. Those who knew Michael well will recognise much of him in Cortege: the restless and almost exotic intensity, the constant concern with talent, dedication and modernity; all these qualities will surely be present in conjuring his memory from the sounds of this world premiere.