Oliver Knussen Figures in a Compelling Mini-Residency

United StatesUnited States Britten, Knussen, and Bedford: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Seattle Symphony, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 17.11.2011

Elgar, Knussen, and Brahms: members of Seattle Symphony, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 20.11.2011 (BJ)

Composers are not always the best conductors of their own – let alone other people’s – music, but then, Oliver Knussen is not just (“just”!) a composer. Though he first came to the music world’s attention as a very precocious composer indeed, with three symphonies to his name by the time he was 22, he has since established himself as the go-to man for orchestras seeking someone to entrust with the performance of contemporary music as well as a variety of older works.

Having worked with him in my earlier capacity as an orchestra administrator, and having also performed and recorded with him as a narrator, I can attest to Knussen’s exceptional gift for rehearsing even the most complex works in a way that ensures stress-free and exciting performances. The blend of security, eloquence, and often sheer brilliance that results was amply in evidence in this concert with the Seattle Symphony, which not only seemed perfectly at home in some relatively unfamiliar repertoire, but sounded at least as good as it has sounded all season so far. The contributions of woodwind, brass, and percussion sections and soloists were all skillful and sensitive, and they made their effect against a backdrop (or rather, I suppose, frontdrop) of lambent and finely focused string tone.

Knussen’s orchestral program was book-ended by music of Benjamin Britten. First we heard the relatively unfamiliar Canadian Carnival, a piquant little orchestral fantasy with folklore roots, orchestrated with great imagination. And the evening ended with a searching and eloquent reading of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. Knussen elected to perform the Passacaglia not at the end but between the second and third interludes: a good idea, I think, because, effective as it is in its place in the opera, the Passacaglia is perhaps the least strongly characterized of the five pieces. Susan Gulkis Assadi’s superb viola solo made the best possible case for it, but still, the Storm interlude (which turns material shared with the second movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to striking new purposes) showed itself to be an altogether stronger ending in the concert hall. Appropriately enough, this storm clearly blew the audience away under Knussen’s hands.

As for his own music, the piece he offered was his Violin Concerto. Composed ten years ago, this is a compact (less than 20 minutes in duration) three-movement work, consisting of a Recitative, an Aria, and a Gigue. The Recitative and Gigue are lively in more or less traditional fast-movement vein, but illuminated by many touches of individuality in texture and sonority; the sumptuously lyrical Aria is in every sense the heart of the work. I first heard Leila Josefowicz play it in Philadelphia when it was still fairly new, and she played it well then, but I was much more strongly impressed by the work this time around, no doubt partly because this exceptionally gifted violinist has lived with it over many performances. At any rate, played now with fine, high-flying freedom and gorgeous tone, the concerto seemed to me an altogether more substantial and compelling work than I had previously thought.

Now 59, Knussen is an indefatigable champion – rather like Liszt back in the 19th century – of his younger colleagues’ music. On this occasion, he presented Outblaze the Sky, which Luke Bedford, now 33, composed five years ago. A mere six minutes in duration, it nevertheless makes an impression of considerable stature. Based essentially on an evolving chord, it takes off from the inspiration of a poem in the English writer D.M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel. Bedford moves easily and beguilingly from color to color. For once, praise be, here is a young composer who does not feel the need to prove to us what a tough guy he is. This is dreamy and mostly gentle music. Every now and then, however, a dynamic swell evokes a sense of veiled yet alluring threat – not inappropriate, given that sex is not an exclusively gentle pastime, and that the Thomas poem is said to be rich in erotic imagery.

Taking advantage of Knussen’s presence in town, the Seattle Symphony management had the excellent idea of turning his visit into a kind of mini-residency by putting some of his music on the chamber-music program for the Sunday afternoon following his orchestral concerts. Before intermission, Jeffrey Fair on horn, Robin Peery on flute, Sean Osborn on clarinet, Stefan Farkas on oboe, and Mike Gamburg on bassoon gave accomplished performances of two of Knussen’s works for wind quintet. Dating from Knussen’s teens, the Three Little Fantasies are the work of a composer already well-versed in contemporary techniques yet also with an attractive musical personality of his own. The other quintet piece, Alleluya Nativitas, is not an original Knussen composition, but simply his instrumentation of a grandiose vocal work of that title by one of the earliest known European composers, Pérotin: it too was performed with authority and grace. The orchestra’s resident pianist, Kimberly Russ, then played Ophelia’s Last Dance. One of Knussen’s most recent compositions, it is a substantial and beautifully expressive piece, laid out in alternations of fluid fast lines with momentary pauses – a firm yet flexible structure built, as it were, of piers and spans.

Elgar being perhaps the most Brahmsian composer since Brahms, it was a clever idea also to put the two together in this chamber concert. Elgar’s only string quartet is an intensely personal piece, with a first movement in a 12/8 pulse akin to both the Second Symphony and the Cello Concerto, a gently ruminative 3/8 central movement only moderately slow in tempo, and a martial finale that is like a distant, somewhat more cerebral cousin of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. It was given a performance of total conviction by violinists Stephen Bryant and Artur Girsky, violist Mara Gearman, and Walter Gray.

Brahms’s G-major String Quintet, Op. 111, played by a different group of musicians, fared rather less well. The performance it received was certainly lively, but it emphasized power and brilliance at the distinct expense of sensitivity and lyricism. It was only the violists, Arie Schachter and Timothy Hale, that provided a full measure of the latter qualities, especially in the passionate reaches of the slow movement. At the start of the work, moreover, while the task of projecting the cello’s theme under the tumultuous figurations of the other four instruments is admittedly formidable – we know that the Rosé Quartet cellist Reinhold Hummer, though noted for the power of his tone, despaired of making the first theme audible at the work’s premiere – it can be done if the other players moderate their tone to a moderate degree. That, however, didn’t happen. Textures throughout the performance lacked transparency, and suffered also from the relative weakness of the bass line supplied by the cellist, whose sound seemed almost ghostly in relation to the more substantial tone of the upper instruments.

But even in a less than ideal rendering, this great chamber work cannot fail to please an audience, and the total effect of the afternoon’s proceedings was not seriously impaired by their somewhat problematic conclusion.

Bernard Jacobson