Prom 19 – Oliver Knussen conducts the BBCSO in a typically unusual programme

31/07/2011

Honegger, Bridge, Berg, Castiglioni and Debussy: Claire Booth (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 29.7.2011 (CG)
Honegger: Pacific 231 (1923)
Pastorale d’été (1920)
Bridge: There is a willow grows aslant a brook (1927)
Berg:Der Wein (1929)
Castiglioni:Inverno in-ver (1973, revised 1978)
Debussy:La Mer (1903-5)

This is just the sort of programming for which one can thank the Proms and Oliver Knussen; only one real warhorse, and the rest of the programme made up of diverse but complementary works seldom given an airing nowadays. Four items were composed during the 1920s, and it is interesting to observe the different paths their composers were treading.

Arthur Honegger was of Swiss parentage, but had also studied in Paris and became a prominent member of the group of composers known as “Les Six.” He developed a lifelong love of counterpoint, a rugged seriousness permeating a good deal of his music. However, he also possessed a strongly pictorial imagination, and this enabled him to become a celebrated film composer when the bank balance needed extra input. Pacific 231 made him a popular figure, and it’s not hard to see why; it is a clever evocation of a railway locomotive, but considerably more than just that. To Honegger (and any railway enthusiast!) the mighty engine represented all that was exciting about industrial development in general and human achievement in particular. It is a wildly effective piece, and Knussen’s control of tempi as the locomotive gathers speed was spot-on. One might have wished for a little more raw energy, perhaps, but that would be a minor quibble, and this made a great concert opener.

The enormous range of Honegger’s output was illustrated by the next piece, Pastorale d’été, in that here we have a quietly intimate work for a small chamber orchestra with single woodwind and a lone French Horn, as opposed to the large scale scoring of the preceding work. You can’t imagine a greater contrast with Pacific 231, or, indeed, some of Honegger’s earlier music. Gone is any suggestion of the atonality which had permeated his ballet of 1918, Le dit des jeux du monde, and gone, too, is the muscular drama of Pacific 231. This lovely piece, with its rustling strings developing into a dance-like section with perky woodwind figures, and then subsiding into a reflective combination of both, was given a beautifully shaped performance.

And so to Frank Bridge’s There is a willow grows aslant a brook which is scored for a similarly small orchestra. Bridge, always keenly interested in musical developments both at home and abroad, employs a chromatic idiom showing his interest in bitonality and even the music of the second Viennese school. Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Gertrude’s speech in Act 4) provides the title, the theme being Ophelia’s death, and the music is imbued with watery features and with a darkness, expressive of ominously gathering gloom. It is a perfect miniature. Once again, the performance was rapturously quiet and sensitive under Knussen’s careful baton, with some outstanding woodwind playing.

To end part one, Alban Berg’s Der Wein demonstrated the composer’s development of Schoenberg’s 12-note system, with plenty of tonal references. It was composed during his work on the unfinished opera Lulu, and shares a similar musical idiom. The poetry is by Baudelaire, and is taken from “Le Vin,” a cycle expressing wine’s properties in helping us to escape from the material world. Berg – a real romantic in life as well as in music – had an ultimately painful affair with the wife of an industrialist, and heartache and an autumnal melancholy permeates the music as the vocal line soars above the richly orchestrated tapestry beneath. Some may have preferred a rather more weighty performance than Claire Booth’s, but I for one found it nevertheless both beautiful and moving. The balance between voice and orchestra was also generally very well handled in the cavernous Albert Hall, with neither dominating the other overly.

Moving away from the twenties, part two opened with Inverno in-ver by the Italian composer, Niccolò Castiglioni. This is winter music, and winter music par excellence. The orchestration is absolutely fascinating; nearly always in an extremely high register. The work consists of eleven separate pieces exploring various kinds of iciness. Tinkly notes and trills from the piano, celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone, harp, tubular bells, with string harmonics and chattering woodwinds occupy much of the soundscape, and it’s all tremendously imaginative. Castiglioni employs his vivid and original aural imagination to the full. There are references to Bach, popular songs, and dances, but all are brief and in some way distorted or mixed up with contemporary devices. At times the music almost stands still – at others it is very active. And it is both extraordinary and extraordinarily beautiful. It appeared to be an excellent performance.

Finally, “warhorse” time; but La Mer proved to be no inappropriate bedfellow with the curiosities so far played. Following the roar of the railway engines at the start, the whole programme had largely centred around music that was exquisitely conceived and orchestrated, and I daresay all the composers so far presented would have doffed their caps to M. Debussy. So we revelled in the dawn at sea, the lapping waves, the howling winds and magisterial beauty of the briny, and we went home with ears and minds refreshed by vivid performances of some wonderful music.

Christopher Gunning

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