Oliver Knussen’s Sixtieth Birthday Celebrated in Style

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Total Immersion – Oliver Knussen at 60: Soloists, Guildhall New Music Ensemble, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Richard Baker, Oliver Knussen (conductors). Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Barbican Hall, London, 4.11.2012 (MB)

Masks, op.3 (1969)
Three Little Fantasies
, op.6a (1970, rev.1983)
, op.12 (1975)
Songs Without Voices
, op.26 (1991-2)
Sonya’s Lullaby
, op.16 (1977-8)
Océan de terre
, op.10 (1972-3, rev.1976)

Martha Lloyd (flute)
Maud Millar, Olivia Robinson (sopranos)
Richard Uttley (piano)
Guildhall New Music Ensemble
Richard Baker (conductor)
Autumnal, op.14 (1976-7)
, op.24 (1989)
Secret Psalm
(1990, rev.2003)
Prayer Bell Sketch
, op.29 (1997)
Ophelia’s Last Dance
, op.32 (2009-10)

Alexandra Wood (violin)
Ryan Wigglesworth, Huw Watkins (piano)

Flourish with Fireworks, op.22 (1988, rev.1993)
, op.8 (1970-72)
Whitman Settings
, op.25a (1991, orch.1992)
Horn Concerto, op.28 (1994, rev.1995)
Two Organa
, op.27 (1994)
Requiem – Songs for Sue
, op.33 (2005-6)
Symphony no.3, op.18 (1973-9)

Claire Booth (soprano)
Martin Owen (horn)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

The Barbican and BBC have done Oliver Knussen proud on his sixtieth birthday. Following magical performances of his two operas on the Saturday night, Sunday saw three concerts plus a typically informative, well-crafted, and enjoyable film from Barrie Gavin, made for Knussen’s fiftieth birthday and now re-shown here. The only real disappointment was the round-table discussion following the film, which suffered from an evident lack of preparation, degenerating into, or rather never raising itself above, generalised, aimless chat. Anyway, enough of that.

The first concert, for which the Guildhall New Music Ensemble formed the backbone, presented various chamber works. Masks from 1969 was the earliest as well as the first. Written for solo flute with ad lib. glass chimes, it is harmless, though the flautist’s wandering around now seems very much of its time. Martha Lloyd (with George Barton on percussion) performed it ably; I fear that, unless the composer is Debussy or Berio, I am not the most responsive of listeners to the solo flute, its arabesques and so forth soon resembling each other all too readily. Knussen’s piece was nevertheless a step – or two steps – up from the vapid conservatoire pieces one often endures from the instrument. Three Little Fantasies, for wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn) was more interesting. For me, the first movement’s opening bars echoed in their intervals – and sonority – Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. Soloists all had their chance thereafter to shine. (I am not sure why Bayan Northcott, in his notes, described this movement as ‘very short’; it did not seem much shorter than either of the other two.) The slow movement benefited from Stravinskian poise, though its predecessor might have benefited from greater precision at times, especially from the horn. Canonic procedures came audibly to the fore in the third movement. Trumpets, for soprano and three clarinets, sets a text by Georg Trakl. Language, vocal line and instrumentation – I immediately thought of Schoenberg’s op.29 – combined to give the piece a recognisably post-Schoenbergian air. Clarinet flourishes were expertly handled by all concerned, Millar offering a nicely variegated performance.

Songs without Voices is in four movements. The instrumentalists offered a much sharper response than in the wind quintet piece, suggesting that here, as in Trumpets, they benefited from Richard Baker’s presence on the podium. A string presence was welcome too, not only from the point of view of variety, but also because the Guildhall string players, the violinist and cellist in particular, played so well, the latter clearly relishing his second movement solo. Each movement was intricate and focused, both as work and performance. In Sonya’s Lullaby, for solo piano, Knussen echoes Debussy, Ravel, and Schoenberg once again. It is a finely wrought piece, the tritonal tension between B and F audibly pervasive – and I am sure it would be, even did one not have the technical language to describe it. Richard Uttley’s performance was as assured as the piano writing itself. The dark instrumental opening, de profundis, of Océan de terre registered deeply in every sense, Knussen’s material arising out of those depths, creating a ravishing sound-world, especially beautiful in terms of solo writing for violin and flute, as well as an active percussion section. Olivia Robinson’s deeply resonant, admirably detailed vocal performance deserves special praise.

The second of the two Guildhall-based concerts involved music for solo piano, solo violin, and violin and piano. Autumnal, the piece for violin and piano, showed, should anyone have doubted this, that audibly generative serial processes need not be opposed to freedom; indeed, they can act as its guarantor. Shades of Britten in the harmonies were brought to the fore lovingly by Alexandra Wood and Huw Watkins. Ryan Wigglesworth’s performance of the piano Variations brought us closer to Webern, as the title – and form – might imply. Again, Knussen’s developmental writing was ably brought out in performance. Secret Psalm, for solo violin, was a memorial piece for Michael Vyner, the former Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta. Northcott’s notes referred to the slow movement of a nineteenth-century violin concerto as the music closest to Vyner’s heart and Knussen’s point of reference; Wood’s warmly Romantic performance eventually revealed this to be the Brahms concerto. Schoenberg – op.11 and op.19 – was again evoked in the Prayer Bell Sketch, performed by Wigglesworth; Debussy too, even if mediated by Takemitsu, for whom the piece acts as a memorial. Its powerful climax is mitigated yet brought into retrospective relief by a magical falling away, tolling in the distance. Watkins performed the newest piece, Ophelia’s Last Dance with equal artistry. Knussen’s side-slipping harmonies put me in mind of Prokofiev; I even wondered whether the ‘graceful source melody’, in Northcott’s apt description, had a hint of Poulenc to it, but perhaps that was merely my fancy. Ghosts of Gaspard de la nuit certainly seemed to be fleetingly apparent – and could one ask for a better pianistic model than that? – if without Ravel’s hyper-virtuosity.

The final, orchestral concert opened with Flourish with Fireworks, scintillating as work and performance, debt to and difference from Stravinsky equally apparent. Choral is for wind, percussion, and double basses. It did not seem to me an especially characteristic piece, almost akin to Stockhausen’s surprisingly conventional Jubilee, which I heard Knussen conduct at the Proms in 2010. The Whitman Settings, sung by the ever-wonderful Claire Booth, served once again to remind us of Knussen’s gift for vocal composition – and his evident love of the soprano voice. Perhaps there was here a hint of Copland, injected into a world recognisable from the operas. The magical orchestral background of ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ reminded us, should anyone have required that reminder, of the mutually beneficial experiences of Knussen’s work as composer and as conductor. The sense of open space – quite aptly for Whitman – seemed as much metaphysical as anything else. Martin Owen joined the band for a remarkable performance of the Horn Concerto, the soloist’s delivery as flawless and as committed as the conductor’s and the orchestra’s. (It is a while since I have heard the BBC SO on such excellent form: a cause for rejoicing in itself.) Perhaps it is a matter of the solo instrument as much as anything else, but late Romantic resonances seemed to abound, turns of phrase echoing Mahler and Strauss, the latter also seemingly an inspiration (Till Eulenspiegel) for the virtuosic orchestral writing. I wonder whether he also inspired, in his Second Horn Concerto, the interplay between solo and orchestral horns. Such fantastical Romanticism also brought the Henze of, say, the Fourth Symphony or König Hirsch, to mind. (Knussen has certainly conducted the symphony. Now if only someone would schedule the opera…)

The white-note musical box ‘Notre Dame des Jouets’ is an orchestration of the first of Knussen’s Two Organa. Its mechanised play provides a link, despite the very different chromatic language, with the finely yet densely layered second. Both exhibited, once again, Knussen’s characteristic brand of orchestral fantasy. Knussen dedicated the performance of Requiem – Songs for Sue, written as a memorial for his wife, to the memory of Henze, not just as composer but also, as Knussen reminded us, a vital part of the ecosystem of London musical life, having assisted three generations of composers in this country as well as his own. The different languages – English, Spanish, English, and German – of the four songs elicited differences in vocal style, ably projected by Booth, but the character of each song was not so much a ‘reflection’ of the language as evidence of the synergy of setting and formal progression in combination.

Finally, we heard the Third Symphony. A fantastical sound world once again announced itself, with all manner of possible correspondences: Henze, Stravinsky, Ravel, Dukas, et al. But that is not to say they were necessarily ‘influences’, for this is very much a coherent whole; orchestral mastery sings its own praises. Structure, on both a micro- (motivic, cellular) as well as a macro-level was always admirably clear, without any sense of abstraction or imposition; it always seemed inherent in the material, which of course it is. The use of a chorale perhaps inevitably brought Messiaen to mind, though the differences are more telling. There is none of the hieratic quality of the French master in this work; it is far too busy, a star burning bright. And, unlike Messiaen, Knussen is never tempted – at least not on the evidence of these three concerts – to overstay his welcome. He only takes as much time as is absolutely necessary: a welcome attribute indeed.


Mark Berry