Knussen Leads the BBC SO in a Fascinating Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Myaskovsky, Goehr, Castiglioni, Schoenberg: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.1.2012 (CC)

Myaskovsky: Symphony No. 10 in F minor, Op. 30 (1926/7)
GoehrWhen Adam Fell (2011, World Première)
Castiglioni: Concerto (1963, UK Première)
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, version for full orchestra, Op. 9b (1906, rev. 1922) 1935)

This was a characteristically fascinating programming from Oliver Knussen. Even with the (equally characteristic) repetition of a piece -the Castiglioni – the event closed around 21:25.

Performances of Myaskovsky symphonies are rare; of these, the Tenth is one of the rarer. It is inspired by The Bronze Horseman (Pushkin), a story of the drowning of a young man’s fiancée, his cursing of the statue of the bronze horseman in St Petersburg and the statue’s pursuit of the man until the young lover, too, drowns. It is a tremendous score, but one that is complex in the sheer amount of material it presents, often simultaneously, within its brief, quarter-hour span..The ominous opening (low strings in octaves, threatening timpani) is identifiably Russian in its portentious blackness. The feeling of unrest and tumult brings to mind the Second and Third symphonies of Shostakovich (1927 and 1930, respectively). Myaskovsky brings in moments of repose, though, including some memorable solo violin passages (well taken by the BBCSO’s guest leader, Andrew Haveron ). It is these solo violin moments that take Myaskovsky closest to the world of Schoenberg. Knussen was certainly alive to the music’s brightening, its struggles to escape its own oppression. The high violins of the BBCSO have a tendency to screech in the upper register, though, and this trait was to recur, distractingly, later in the concert (notably in the Schoenberg).

World Premières are the BBCSO’s bread and butter. Alexander Goehr’s When Adam Fell (2011) was a BBC commission. Its basis is interesting: the title comes from “Durch Adams Fall ist alles verderbt”, a chorale set by Bach in remarkably advanced fashion, notably with a chromatic bass, a series of descending sixths and sevenths made even more angular by rests between the intervals. Goehr, in his programme note, tells us that this chorale was a favourite of Messiaen’s, who played it in class. Goehr frees the bass-line registrally, and has it fall from the extreme heights to the extreme depths. A rising melody provides balance and contras. Goehr’s scoring is masterly, as was obvious right from the glittering woodwind of the opening. The melodies were expressionistically angular (and therefore forming another link to Schoenberg). Despite Goehr’s clearly rigorous methods, the effect was unsettlingly diffuse.

Knussen has championed the music of Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-96) before, and readers may be aware of a recent issue on the NEOS label of Altisonanza (1990-92) for orchestra and the oratorio Le favole di Esopo (1979) (NEOS 11031), a recording of the utmost excellence if low playing time (48’20). The Concerto of 1963 is a mere six minutes (we heard it twice, as mentioned above), and is scored for orchestra minus clarinets, trombones or percussion (except timpani). The music is typical of this composer in its glacial sound and its Webernian, expressive use of silences. Unfortunately the BBCSO strings were not up to the gossamer lightness Castiglioni demands of his performers. The scoring is massively assured throughout – a passage of piercing trumpets cutting through a mobile cloud of sound provides just one example. Castiglini’s music is, typically for Italian modernity, utterly uncompromising, and yet its sheer beauty of sound draws one into its mysteries. This, surely, was the clear highlight of the evening.

Finally, the full orchestra version of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. The Op. 9b of 1935 (at which time Schoenberg was a Hollywood resident) adds some voices and fills out some harmonies. Inevitably, the lean nature of the original is compromised. Instead of giving the lines more time to speak, though, Knussen gave us breathless fast sections, a fast and furious showpiece that seemed to take us further away from Schoenberg’s original. Now the sound was refulgent instead of sinewy. Again, the high strings caused some discomfort, but there were some moments of compensation (notably some humour in the form of the rude double-bassoon). So, in terms of the arrangement what it loses in fragility it gains in opulence. A fascinating outing, but give me the original any time.

Colin Clarke