In this celebration of his music and artistic leadership, the works by Knussen himself provided a synopsis of his music over three decades. The capricious flute arabesques, commented on by offstage chimes, of Masks (1969) have a theatricality typical of the era. With Océan de Terre (1973), the Knussen sound, texturally dense and harmonically intricate yet always translucent and often sensuous, is in place. Less a setting of than a commentary around a surrealist poem by Apollinaire, the voice was placed almost too far back in the ensemble though Claire Booth projected the sense, if not always the meaning, of the vocal line with evident feeling.
The latter 1970s saw some of the works by which Knussen will continue to be known long into the future. The increasing rhythmic agility, culminating in a languorous postlude, of Ophelia Dances (1975) seemed a little temperate on the night, but the propulsive energy of Coursing (1979) was vividly conveyed a Concerto for Chamber Orchestra which plays to the Sinfoniettas strengths now as over twenty years before.
The early 1990s saw a sequence of works where concision does not begin to equate with small-scale or lightweight. Songs without Voices (1992) is a set of four inventive pieces where the vocal-line has been instrumentally rendered. The valedictory fourth number began life as a memorial tribute to Andrzej Panufnik, and it made for an apt juxtaposition to have the original Elegiac Arabesques (1991) a ruminative dialogue for cor anglais and clarinet played as an entrée to the longer work. Two Organa (1994) encapsulates Knussens mature idiom: the musical box-like whimsicality of Notre Dame des Jouets followed by the incident-packed and emotionally ambivalent Organum. Few composers could penetrate such differing soundworlds with this technical finesse.
In what was a lengthy and unwieldy three-part concert (though nearly everyone stayed the course), the 50th birthday tributes were as numerous as they were pleasurable. From among the piano solo and duo tributes that formed a pre-concert event, Julian Andersons teasingly elusive Quasi una Passacaglia and Detlev Glanerts quixotic Dancing Landscape were more than just occasional pieces.
Of the instrumental tributes interspersed among the Knussen items, Elliott Carters Au Quai an engaging discourse for bassoon and viola and Alexander Goehrs tribute, a miniature chamber concerto of witty contrasts, were perhaps the highlights; although Augusta Read Thomass Light the First Light of Evening has enough material for a more developed piece, and would be worth elaborating. George Benjamin, who directed those new pieces requiring a conductor, contributed his insinuating Olly Cantus just before the close.
A fitting commemoration, then, of a veritable force for good in the often fractured and marginalized world of contemporary music. Even better, Knussen seems once more to be on a roll creatively. Pinchas Zukerman premiered his Violin Concerto earlier this year, and a Fourth Symphony seems at last to be nearing realisation. Taken in conjunction with his conducting activities, the next decade could be the most vital and fulfilling yet.
- Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on 18th July at 7.30pm. Click here to Listen on-line