Birmingham Celebrates Oliver Knussen at Sixty

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel, Knussen, Berg, Debussy: Claire Booth (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 3. 5. 2012 (CT)

Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Knussen: Whitman Settings, Op. 25a
Berg: Altenberg-Lieder
Debussy: Nocturnes

Billed as ‘The Year 1912’, the context of this concert could be seen as an A-Z of works that have figured as formative influences on Oliver Knussen’s own colourful, creative language. The transparency and exquisite clarity of Ravel’s orchestration, the sparing yet immensely powerful use of massive orchestral forces employed by Alban Berg and the sumptuousness of Debussy’s Nocturnes have all played a part in the crystalline luminosity of Knussen’s own work, the music of his forebears seemingly refracted and distilled through the brilliance and originality of his own compositional mind.

As Knussen celebrates his sixtieth birthday with a year-long musical party that sees his music enjoying prominence at the Proms and the Aldeburgh Festival to name but two events, it is hard to believe that we are now forty five years on from Knussen, the child prodigy, deputizing for an indisposed Istvan Kertesz when the London Symphony Orchestra premiered his First Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall.

Never a man comfortable in the limelight, the ensuing media attention sent Knussen scuttling off to Tanglewood, partially as a means of escape. Yet despite the fact that his familiar bear-like, shambling appearance is tinged with a touch of fragility these days, he remains a National Musical Treasure, his quietly spoken, publicity shy yet musically generous nature essentially unchanged.

Not for the first time, a traffic snarl-up in Birmingham saw to it that your frustrated reviewer missed the opening work of the concert, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and so it was that Knussen’s own Whitman Settings, with Claire Booth as the soprano soloist, became, for me, the unintentional first work of the night.

Claire Booth is a lady who has developed a reputation as something of a Knussen specialist since her professional debut singing his Apollinaire setting, Ocean de Terre, at the composer’s fiftieth birthday celebration concert. For a few moments in the opening song, ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’, she seemed slightly ill at ease as she struggled to project her voice over the orchestra; not the fault of the players but more likely a result of her settling into the qualities (and, to some degree, unsettling nature) of the Symphony Hall acoustic. By the second song however, ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’, there were no such concerns as the soloist scaled the wide ranging intervals of Knussen’s writing with remarkable freedom, delicacy and finesse whilst the swooping vocal acrobatics of ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ were matched by the remarkable, shimmering nature of Knussen’s orchestral accompaniment. Few song cycles of recent years have achieved the gloriously rich, seam of imaginative fertility evidenced by Knussen’s exquisite settings.

The immediate comparison with Alban Berg’s early Five Songs to Postcard texts by Peter Altenberg proved to be a striking one, the music evidencing clearly Knussen’s fascination with Berg and his orchestral scoring. Remarkably the songs represented Berg’s first use of orchestra, yet these diamond-like miniature nuggets, the fleeting three central songs almost vignette-like in their brevity, yet packing a huge emotional punch, proved to be a perfect vehicle for Claire Booth’s gloriously versatile technique, ranging from the stratospheric, in the third song ‘Über die Grenzen des All’, to the impressive control and gravitas of the final ‘Hier ist Friede’. Knussen’s sensitive direction of the huge but sparingly used orchestral forces was beautifully judged, allowing full reign to the soloist’s intense, animated delivery.

Like Berg’s sparing use of the orchestra, Knussen’s economical conducting technique does the job without a hint of waste or posturing, yet the atmosphere and energy he drew from the orchestra in Debussy’s Nocturnes captured the senses and imagination from the start.

The gently scudding clouds of ‘Nuages’ conjured up in the delicate yet never fragile textures of the closing bars contrasted magnificently with the joyous celebrations of ‘Fêtes’, the gradually approaching torchlit procession of horsemen judged to perfection by Knussen and the orchestra. The contribution of the CBSO Youth Chorus added a wonderfully ethereal sense of innocence to the song of the ‘Sirènes’, luring innocent sailors to their death as they searched for the elusive source of the sirens songs of beauty, the sumptuous seductiveness of the performance beguilingly drawn from a magical fusion of the delicacy of the orchestra and the chorus’s shimmering vocal contribution. It made for a compelling demonstration of the sheer beauty of Debussy’s imaginative and intensely individual sound world.                           

In a little over two weeks time, Knussen will return to Birmingham for a celebratory concert with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, an ensemble with whom he has enjoyed a close association for some years now with the concert featuring not only his own work but that of two rapidly rising stars in Sean Shepherd and Tansy Davies.

As he reaches his sixty-first year, it seems that the generosity of spirit that has been a hallmark of Knussen’s life as conductor and composer shows no sign of abating. 

Christopher Thomas