BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen – Miaskovsky, Goehr, Castiglioni & Schoenberg

Symphony No.10 in F minor, Op.30
When Adam Fell [BBC commission: world premiere]
Concerto [UK premiere]
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9b

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2012 schedule got off to an enterprising start with a short yet diverse concert directed by its Artist in Association Oliver Knussen.

Oliver Knussen. Photograph: Clive BardaSixty this year, Knussen seems to range ever more widely in his repertoire – here featuring a rare outing (when was it last heard in the UK?) for the Tenth Symphony (1927) of Nikolai Miaskovsky. Written when the Soviet Union was about to leave cultural experimentation behind for the uniformity of Socialist Realism, the piece itself embodies that pivoting between the traditional and radical which informs the composer’s 1920s’ output: its single movement unfolding as a highly skewed sonata design whose alternate sections of energy and repose become relative to the febrile expressive manner of the whole. As a statement of intent it is impressive in rhetorical overkill but, as a work conceived for the conductor-less (and soon to be disbanded) orchestra Persimfans, it was hardly likely to succeed. Knussen’s account revealed a formal coherence and textural clarity that made it appreciably more than the sum of its parts: something the composer might have appreciated, were it not merely a stage in his life-long symphonic odyssey for a contemporary and yet communicative idiom which was to remain tantalisingly out of reach.

All of which would have mattered less in a different cultural climate. Not that Alexander Goehr’s When Adam Fell (2011) is thereby uncommunicative, though its laconic austerity made it the perfect foil to the preceding work. Inspired not so much by the chorale itself as by Bach’s singular harmonic treatment of it, this 15-minute piece unfolds as a curious yet arresting amalgam of chaconne, fantasia and rondo – the tensile instrumentation given its rhythmic impetus through the inventive writing for un-tuned percussion (there being no timpani). An example of music existing on its own terms and for its own sake, it was given a notably attentive first hearing.

Compared to which, however, Niccolò Castiglioni’s Concerto (1963) packs a riot of invention and stealthy discontinuity into its brief span. Outwardly akin to the Baroque concerto grosso in terms of its instrumental interplay, a more recent ancestor might be the scintillating Incontri by the composer’s older contemporary Luigi Nono, though that piece’s coruscating intensity is eschewed for something more capricious, even playful in demeanour. Thus an opening section of expanding canonic intricacy opens-out into music of agile dexterity before being blown aside by a violent tutti which coalesces into a climactic brass statement, subsiding into a varied recall of the initial music whose high Bs are revealed as the intended destination all along. At barely six minutes, it is ideal for the second hearing with which Knussen promptly obliged. He has now scheduled a good deal of Castiglioni: dare one hope that these performances might be gathered for commercial release?

Whether intended as complement or contrast, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (1906) certainly made for a decisive rounding-off – especially when heard in the composer’s 1935 version for full orchestra. Made at a time when (rare) performances of the original inevitably foundered over the imbalance between wind and strings, this has the not wholly surprising result of making the piece sound akin to Max Reger in that its abundant contrapuntal detail and wide-ranging though demonstrably tonal follow-through are allied to a dense but not opulent orchestration. Some of Knussen’s tempos – particularly in the unremitting energy of the earlier stages – might have been more easily negotiated in its chamber incarnation, yet overall this was an account that made the most of the music’s meaningful virtuosity. Schoenberg never took the easy option, but his intentions were rarely in doubt – making for a certainty of which a composer such as Miaskovsky must fondly have dreamed.

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