BBCSO/Knussen – 18 March

Petrushka (1946/7 version)
On Opened Ground [UK premiere]

Lawrence Power (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Oliver Knussen’s concerts are seldom without interest in terms of planning, and so it proved here – a recent work by Mark-Anthony Turnage framed by classics from early last century. A viola concerto in intent if not designation (title notwithstanding), On Opened Ground (2001) takes its cue from Seamus Heaney’s eponymous collected poems. How, or even whether, these verses influenced the content or form of the piece is a consideration for the future, but the two-part structure – each consisting of two interrelated sections – is recognisably in a line of concertos stretching back several decades.

The tenacious opening Cadenza throws up numerous motifs to be developed in the Scherzino that follows. With its aggressively syncopated writing and, by the close, an uneasy accommodation of more lyrical writing, this is the most typically ’Turnage-ian’ portion of the piece, and a fine demonstration of how such an idiom can be adapted to a concerto-like format. The second part is less impressive on first hearing. While the harsh juxtaposing of ideas in the Interrupted Song sets up an anticipatory context, the cumulative build-up to a final, elegiac apotheosis in the Chaconne risks contrivance – though the musing interjection of solo violins to the viola’s and orchestra’s pedals is an astute touch.

The work was delivered with assurance by Lawrence Power – a fine chamber player equally at home on the solo stage – with Knussen ensuring that Turnage’s often Tippettian chordal writing left nothing to chance in terms of balance and continuity. If, having gained new orchestral sophistication with Silent Cities back in 1998, Turnage has since seemed to be constructively marking time, On Opened Ground has enough conviction to suggest that he may be about to move up a gear further.

In which sense, context can be illuminating yet unfair. Certainly Stravinsky never achieved a more spontaneous synthesis of ’derived’ and ’created’ elements than with Petrushka. In Birmingham recently, Knussen surprised many by reviving the 1943 edition of The Rite of Spring – with, above all else, its radical metrical re-division in the ’Sacrificial Dance’. The 1946-7 edition of Petrushka is less unnerving – not least because it is better known. Fining down many of the 1911 original version’s more subtle timbral shadings in favour of overall textural and rhythmic consistency, the revision can often feel uninvolved in its portrayal of Shrovetide goings-on. Knussen, however, went a fair way to redressing this deficiency: finding character and poise in the tableaux that is set in the puppet’s cell, and evokingan authentically simulated Russian-ness in the fairground scenes.

While later Stravinsky can be emotionally equivocal to the point of neutrality, Varèse pursued his uncompromising musical destiny to the nth degree – with the result that his mature (i.e. – surviving) output could never be more than a creatively limited one. And yet, as Arcana (1927) so powerfully demonstrates, the price of such continuity was necessarily and compellingly paid. Much has been written about the piece’s mosaic or, depending on viewpoint, al fresco design. Yes, the ideas are in a sense derivative. Yes, it often seems to be seeking a balance between the intuitive and constructed facets of the composer’s musical psyche – not through synthesis but by smashing the two together and leaving interpreter and listener alike to pick up the constituent pieces. But this very implacability of means and ends becomes its own justification, conveyed in terms which unite Schoenbergian continuity with Stravinskian contrast to a degree neither of those figures would dared have contemplate. In short, a magnificently vital and unfortunately – for Varèse even more than posterity – one-off statement.

The performance itself was thrilling. Knussen and the BBCSO gave a memorable one at the Royal Festival Hall almost 15 years ago: this account had comparable intensity, and world-class playing from all departments. Should the BBCSO be contemplating a ’Live’ CD series, Knussen’s Arcana should be included on the first issue without hesitation.

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