Knussen Conducts Music Inspired by the Orient at Aldeburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Colin McPhee, Gunter Schuller & Britten:  Britten–Pears Orchestra / Oliver Knussen (conductor) Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, 28.6.2015 (CS)

Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan
Gunther Schuller: Seven Studies on themes of Paul Klee
Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas (excerpts)


The first tale of royalty which Britten presented on the Covent Garden stage – his ‘coronation’ opera, Gloriana of 1953 – was not well received, struggling as it did to fulfil both the expectations of the aristocratic audience eager to celebrate what the new ‘golden age’ that they hoped the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth would bring about, and Britten’s own creative and expressive ambitions.  But, four years later, after a visit to Bali the previous year, Britten presented his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas to the Royal Ballet, a work which shares with Gloriana a rather ambiguous and unheroic central monarch . Here it is the Prince himself who appears before the beautiful, exiled Emperor’s daughter, Belle Rose, in the form of a salamander – and a penchant for ceremonial élan.

The Prince of the Pagodas finally premiered on New Year’s Day in 1957 to a mixed reception.  Britten had struggled, uncharacteristically, with composer’s block during the writing of the work and found the collaborative process, as he grappled with choreographer John Cranko’s structured synopsis, to be challenging.  The ballet was given 23 performances, revived sporadically, but dropped from the repertory in 1960; it was later revived by Kenneth Macmillan, in 1989, and more recently David Bintley created a new production, inspired by Japanese artwork, for the National Ballet of Japan.

It was good, therefore, to see Pagodas placed at the heart of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival where, alongside a series of gamelan workshops, the ballet received a film screening and was the subject of a study day. The ballet was also used as the starting point for two new pieces by groups of young people from Suffolk – the Fludde Choir and the DanceEast Suffolk Youth Dance Company – which were performed prior to the Festival’s concluding concert in which Oliver Knussen and the Britten-Pears Orchestra presented excerpts of Britten’s ballet.

Knussen’s mastery of both the detail of the score and its choreographic sweep was astonishing.  Economical, unwaveringly precise and clear, he guided and inspired the players of the Britten-Pears Orchestra through a bracing and exciting reading of the work, clarifying its layered textures and complex polyphonic arguments and highlighting the romantic sumptuousness of the orchestral colours.  The percussion section worked hard, moving between gong, cymbals, bells, xylophone and vibraphone, and blending with high piano and rapid flute circular motifs, to conjure the sound-world of the gamelan through which Britten evokes the alien magic and mysticism of Pagoda Land.   There was some superb string playing too, the violins in particular marshalling behind the authoritative direction of their leader with consistent unanimity.  This was a highly impressive account, one which showed that the work rivals Prokofiev’s ballets for energy and glitter.

It was Britten’s encounter with Canadian composer Colin McPhee in the autumn of 1939 that initiated his interest in the music of the Far East – in particularly in Balinese music, dance and culture – which he would cultivate and which would inform the development of his musical language throughout his career.  Recently returned from a seven-year sojourn on the island of Bali, McPhee was invigorated by the exoticism of native Balinese music and excitedly shared his insights and experiences with the young Britten.  Tabuh-Tabuhan was composed when McPhee visited Mexico in 1936, and it is inspired by his understanding the Balinese gamelan technique which he had at that time already been studying for several years.

The composer has himself explained:  ‘The title of the work derives from the Balinese word tabuh, originally meaning the mallet used for striking a percussion instrument, but extended to mean strike or beat – the drum, a gong xylophone or metallophone. Tabuh-Tabuhan is thus a Balinese collective noun, meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive. […] To transfer the intricate chime-like polyphonic figuration of the gamelan keyed instruments and gong-chimes, I have used a ‘nuclear gamelan’ composed of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. These form the core of the orchestra.’

There are three movements, ‘Ostinatos’, ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Finale’, and while these in no way resemble a western symphonic structure, the lustrous sonorities, relentless rhythmic drive and rich textures are certainly ‘symphonic’ in dimension.  And, there are kinships with the dance music of Copland and with Milhaud’s and Stravinsky’s jazz-inspired works, as well as with Latin-American popular dances and American jazz.

‘Ostinatos’ has a collage-like structure, and Knussen was fastidiously precise in articulating the interlocking melodies and rhythms, shaping the contrapuntal and temporal complexities, and controlling the ever-escalating impetus as material was repeated before being interrupted by new ideas.  The conductor drew lustrous sonorities from the players, creating the vivid ambience of the gamelan with its rich counterpoints and glistening harmonies.  There was confident, well-co-ordinated playing from the strings and strong percussion interjections.  The serenity established by the flute theme at the start of ‘Nocturne’ – an authentic Balinese melody – was quickly swept away by further restless rhythmic development, and when the melody returned at the close it was stratospheric and penetrating, the flute joined by piccolo, above the busy arguments below.  The dance rhythms of ‘Finale’ built up a tremendous energy and the intricate syncopations were charmingly hypnotic.

Tabuh-Tabuhan was a ground-breaking work and it deserved the dedicated approach of Knussen and the B-PO, who played with a captivating blend of musical commitment and exuberant, playful energy.  The solo piano parts were played by Katherine Dowling and Qing Jiang, whose pungent motifs, repetitions and rhythmic explosions were lucid and full of bite.  The overall effect was a beguiling amalgam of the familiar and the strange.

The remaining work, Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, had been programmed as a 90th birthday tribute to the American composer but, as Knussen announced before the performance, in the light of the composer’s death the week before, it was now a fitting memorial to the teacher and friend whom Knussen remembered with great warmth and affection.

Seven Studies, like the other two works in the programme, builds bridges between different idioms and genres.  In 1957 Schuller coined the term ‘third-stream’ to describe ‘a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music’.  Seven Studies, composed two years later to fulfil a commission by the Minneapolis Symphony and Antal Dorati, is the most well-known embodiment of Schuller’s ambition, and aims to find musical equivalents – sounds of colour – for seven paintings by the Swiss modernist Paul Klee.

Schuller wrote: ‘Each of the seven pieces bears a slightly different relationship to the original Klee picture from which it stems … Some relate to the actual design, shape, or color scheme of the painting, while others take the general mode of the picture or its title as a point of departure.’

Knussen and the BP-O were certainly attentive to the details that illuminate such contrasts and – as the conductor explained before the performance – to delineating the different musical idioms which with the individual movements engage and converse.  The first movement, ‘Antique Harmonies’ contrasted dense orchestral textures with the barer, ‘antique’ sonority of open fifths, while different, predominantly wind-based groups of three instruments alternated in ‘Abstract Trio’.   ‘The Twittering-Machine’ was characterised by stuttering points of sound, not unlike Webern.  But, the movements which made the most impact were the haunting ‘Arab Village’ – with its beautiful, floating off-stage flute reverie and plaintive oboe melody, which established a static meditativeness which contrasted markedly with the prevailing agitation – and the rhythmically inventive ‘Little Blue Devil’ in which the principal double bass demonstrated a comfortable affinity for the blues.

I’m not sure that Knussen and his young players were able to make a case for the overall coherence of the seven movements, but they were meticulously attentive to the details and rhythmically precise.

Knussen conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee at this year’s Proms, on Thursday 6th August at the Royal Albert Hall.

Claire Seymour

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