Knussen and the BBCSO Introduce New Works by Schuller and Benjamin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Maxwell Davies, Schuller, Debussy, Benjamin and Stravinsky: Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.3.2016. (AS)

Maxwell Davies: Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky.

Schuller: Dreamscape (UK premiere)

Debussy: Nocturnes

Benjamin: Dream of the Song (UK premiere)

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements

When he reached the podium Oliver Knussen announced that the concert would begin with an additional work: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Canon, as a tribute to the composer who had died four days previously. The full title of this very brief piece is Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky. Scored for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet, it was written soon after Stravinsky’s death in 1971. After the performance the audience remained silent whilst orchestra and conductor remained in motionless tribute to Sir Peter, but it was a shame that a sprinkling of clapping then broke out, contrary to Knussen’s request that there should be no applause.

Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape was written to a 2012 commission by the Tanglewood Music Center for a piece lasting ten or so minutes. The entire content of the work presented itself to Schuller in a dream, the memory of which fortunately lasted long enough for the composer quickly to write down in short form what he had experienced. In a programme note (obviously written by the late composer for an earlier performance) Schuller remarked that he had been forced by the dream to employ compositional devices that he would never have consciously attempted. The dream had also prescribed three movements; a humorous scherzo, a nocturne and one which described the process of evolution following the birth process. And so we heard a spiky, percussive, jazzy sequence with a quote from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and a single male shout from within the BBCSO’s depths, a dark, rather sinister interlude, and a study that began with quiet orchestral slithering and writhing rather in the style of Berg and then opened up with an increase in tempo and louder dynamics. Schuller’s experience as a player and conductor provided him with considerable skill as a dealer in orchestral effects: Dreamscape proved to be an interesting and imaginative essay, even if it is by no means a masterpiece.

Debussy’s Nocturnes served in a way as a connecting link between the Schuller and the Benjamin work that was to follow, though this masterpiece did have the effect of dwarfing its neighbours in musical quality. Knussen has shown impressive credentials in the music of the French master, and his account of “Nuages” was very skilled in the way that he brought out its refined expressive nuances, but maintained a forward-moving pulse. Yet the response of the BBCSO seemed curiously uncommitted, and so a sense of poetry and atmosphere was rather lacking. “Fêtes” was lively enough, a little too much so, though instrumental detail was well observed, and for his sensitive account of  “Sirènes” Knussen separated the female wordless chorus into two groups on either side of the platform, and introduced some antiphonal effects. This was intriguing in a way, but not as Debussy intended. I can only recall one performance of this work in which the composer’s intentions were faithfully realised: he wanted to have the singers individually separated and positioned at various points throughout the orchestral ranks.

George Benjamin’s new work Dream of the Song here received its first UK performance. The composer has set six poems by three authors, Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who wrote in Hebrew in the eleventh century, and Gabriel García Lorca, the Spanish poet who was killed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. The influence of Arabic poetry on these writers is the connecting link in Benjamin’s settings, and the work is written for solo counter-tenor, female chorus and an orchestra consisting of strings, two oboes, four horns, two harps and percussion.

Benjamin has the gift of creating a beautiful quality of orchestral sound, and in Dream of the Song he shows great skill in creating timbres that allow both the chorus and solo voice to come through the instrumental texture clearly and combine well in the passages where both sing together. The work is full of atmosphere and no doubt would have created a stronger dramatic effect if the soloist, Iestyn Davies, had paid more attention to the words he was singing rather than concentrating on producing quality of tone, lovely though this was. The chorus, too, was not without fault in this respect. Even with the texts to hand, it was difficult to follow the words.

The tempo indication for the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (crochet = 160) is clear enough, so why do most present-day conductors ignore it and adopt a tempo that is too fast? After the concert, as an exercise, I played excerpts from Stravinsky’s own first, 1946 recording, Rudolf Albert’s mid-1950s version, and late 1950s to early 1950s recordings by Goossens, Silvestri, Ansermet and Klemperer. All of them, and also Furtwängler in his live 1950 performance, follow the composer’s instructions reasonably faithfully. At the original basic tempo this movement creates an impression of gigantic strength and raw power, so that the quieter middle section of the work provides a softer interlude before the fury and energy of the final movement. At the tempo adopted by Knussen the music sounded merely lively and balletic, so that the middle movement contrast was not made, and the finale sounded too much like the work’s beginning.

Unfortunately the trend towards the faster tempo seems to have been created by the composer himself, for live performances of his during the 1950s already show such a change. As a continuingly evolving creative spirit, the composer naturally tended to view his earlier works from whatever later stage of development he had reached, but in this case his first thoughts were surely best.

Knussen’s performance was at best routine in other respects, too. Where, for example, was the observation of the composer’s L’istesso tempo direction in the passage that links the second and third movements? Here the music was played without any nuance, and the finale that followed merely exuded a bright, lively character, without the tension and vehemence it should possess.

Alan Sanders

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