BBCSO Knussen

Praeludium for Brass, Bells and Percussion
Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Micomicón [UK premiere]
Don Quixote, Op.35

Paul Watkins (cello)
Norbert Blume (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 February, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A typically thought-provoking programme from Oliver Knussen. Good to have acknowledgement of Tippett’s centenary, and if the Praeludium (1962) is a relatively ‘occasional’ piece, its harmonic asperity and remarkably influential scoring (how much has Birtwistle drawn on the terraced brass writing and the percussion’s articulation of overall form?) make its revival amply worthwhile – especially when given with such focused impact as here.

For all his protean creativity and cross-disciplinary zeal, Gunther Schuller (born 1925) remains a largely unknown quantity in the UK. The fact that the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959) is his best known work hardly makes it familiar concert fare, and was well worth hearing afresh. Schuller’s greatest ability lies in his bringing a range of stylistic concerns – jazz and serialism among them – into positive co-alliance, so an inclusive yet personal idiom results. Culturally inclusive too – witness the ‘medieval’ cadences of ‘Antique Harmonies’, the big-band blues of ‘Little Blue Devil’, or the fathomless vistas evoked by ‘Arab Village’. Klee is often described as the most musical of modern artists, but perhaps this influence lies less in his actual paintings than in the ‘incitement to conceive’ to which they give rise. Schuller’s piece embodies this precept in thoughtful yet entertaining fashion: how else to explain the effect of music so rigorously composed as ‘The Twittering Machine’ or so acutely imagined as ‘An Eerie Moment’? Indeed, the whole sequence is as persuasive an entrée into mid-twentieth-century music as could be wished, and Knussen’s advocacy made the strongest possible case for its revival. (The Schuller replaced Knussen’s own Cleveland Pictures.)

Elliott Carter’s continuing creativity into his mid-90s would still be remarkable were not the music of so consistently high quality. Composed for James Levine and the Boston Symphony, Micomicón (2002) packs typical diversity into its colourful three minutes – the whole regulated by subtle co-ordination of tempo and texture such as Carter has for so long made his own. Realising the benefit of a second hearing, Knussen obliged with a repeat performance: characteristically, Micomicón has now been joined by two further miniatures as Three Illusions for Orchestra – the latest of Carter’s numerous triptychs.

The inspiration of Micomicón in an episode from Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” made inclusion of Strauss’s “fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character” apposite as well as welcome in its own right. Over the years, Knussen has proved himself a fine interpreter of a select number of mainstream classics (memories of Elgar’s Falstaff with the Hallé remain fresh after two decades), and his Don Quixote was remarkable for the degree of cohesion teased out from the main theme as it informs the character and substance of the variation sequence in what is Strauss’s most affecting – because most human – tone poem. The graphic representation of windmills and sheep, the whimsical vigour of the rustic dance, the Don’s rapt vision of Dulcinea – all were realised with insight and finesse. Paul Watkins relished his solo outing in playing alternately robust and tender, while Norbert Blume made of the obbligato viola that is Sancho Panza a character quicker-witted and more aware than perhaps the composer realised. The BBCSO was on excellent form (would that it played as well for certain other regular conductors), such as encouraged one to savour anew Strauss’s orchestral resource.

Prior to the second half, Knussen was presented by Nicholas Kenyon with the Association of British Orchestras 2004 Award for his services to British music-making. A pity that, as so often at these concerts, attendance was notable by its lacking – this well-planned and finely executed programme was worthy of a greater response than the admittedly enthusiastic one it so justly received.

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