He may no longer be the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Artist-in-Association, but Oliver Knussen maintains a relationship with it as was evident in this concert including the first UK outing for a recent work by George Benjamin.
Less a song-cycle and more a scena, Dream of the Song (2015) juxtaposes verse by eleventh-century poets – Samuel Hanagrid and Solomon ibn Gabirol – allotted to a countertenor with those by Federico García Lorca given to female singers. This contrast in medium was paralleled by that of setting the Medieval texts in English (as translated by Peter Cole), and also by an orchestration where two oboes and four horns are joined by strings (including two harps) and percussion. Playing for just under twenty minutes, the piece unfolds as an intensifying arch in which the initially distant entry of the chorus leads to the brief but forceful fourth setting, before taking on a now-found repose in the respectively eloquent and ecstatic final sections. Iestyn Davies was as restrained and as ardent as the music requires, the BBC Singers and BBCSO responding ably to Knussen’s direction.
Benjamin’s work was ideally complemented before the interval by Debussy’s Nocturnes (1899). The epitome of this composer’s relatively brief phase of pure Impressionism, it remains among his most personal statements. Knussen duly underlined the veiled textures and amorphous expression of ‘Nuages’, then the speculative activity of ‘Fêtes’ with its central march-past that invades without dominating the foreground. Finally, ‘Sirènes’ teased and intrigued with its minx-like emotional detachment, the wordless women's voices positioned on either side of the orchestra so as to dovetail effortlessly into the overall sound.
Rather more visceral fare came at the start of the programme. A ‘concerto for orchestra’ both compact and eventful, Dreamscape (2012) finds the late Gunther Schuller articulating a dream into reality – the barbed playfulness of its opening 'Scherzo umoristico e curioso' making way for the sombre restiveness of ‘Nocturne’, before the fast-track evolutionary mayhem of ‘Birth–Evolution–Culmination’ saw the piece to its febrile close.
A comparable impact was provided by Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945). Here there was no doubt as to this work’s intrinsically symphonic status, Knussen drawing out the formal logic behind the collage-like disjunctiveness of the first movement, then finding no mean expressive depth within the poise of the central Andante. A disciplined response was even more in evidence during the Finale, its textural dislocation giving rise to the most unlikely yet conclusive of mid-twentieth century perorations – here thrilling in its impact.
At the start of the evening, Knussen paid tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with a rendering of the latter’s own canonic memorial to Stravinsky – a brief and touching evocation that led effortlessly into a minute of silence.