Birthday Bonanza or The Law of Diminishing Harps – 23 June

Cello Concerto (European première)
Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
Whitman Settings, Op.25a
Fireworks, Op.4
The Rite of Spring

Rosemary Hardy (soprano)
Fred Sherry (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 June, 2002
Venue: The Maltings, Snape

There could have been no better day for this deeply satisfying and delightful concert to close the 55th Aldeburgh Festival. The sun had joined the audience to wish Oliver Knussen a happy 50th birthday; most of whom took the opportunity for a walk amongst the reed beds that makes the Maltings setting so wonderful. Earlier in the month the London Sinfonietta had brought a raft of new works for Knussen’s actual birthday (12 June), but here – apart from the suitably ad hoc rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the orchestra at the end – Knussen had conceived the programme with his typical eye to the maxim that the whole should add up to more than the constituent parts.

A Stravinskian symmetry led from the opening Fireworks – attacked with suitable sparkle and finesse by the BBCSO which collectively relished the cracks, rustles and fizzing of Stravinsky’s youthful score – to an admirably clear-sighted rendition of The Rite of Spring, Knussen utilising the 1943 version of the ’Danse sacrale’, which not only doubles note values but clarifies a wealth of textual, harmonic and dynamic points. Due to copyright issues it is not in the published score. Knussen seemed more controlled than any other conductor I have seen at the end of the work. Knussen’s restrained yet always telling gestures were the epitome of cool efficiency achieving maximum effect; the closing section seemed more secure (but no less abandoned) than other performances. Intriguingly, the BBC Radio 3 broadcast (on 25 June) made no mention of the 1943 version, nor include the impromptu performance of “Happy Birthday”.

Knussen was also represented twice. Flourish with Fireworks was written as a companion piece to the Stravinsky for the opening of Michael Tilson Thomas’s tenure at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra; where Stravinsky makes reference to Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Knussen modes his musical sparkler on the Stravinsky. Both scores need two harps. Then one was removed for the Carter and retained for Knussen’s Whitman Settings (beautifully sung by Rosemary Hardy, although the words were often subsumed by the resonant orchestral sound and came over better on the radio). The single harp was then removed – The Rite is bereft of harps (a fact that amazes me given the orchestra is so large).

Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto was premièred last year, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony for Yo-Yo Ma. Carter was 92 when he wrote it, and relied on his good friend, the New York cellist Fred Sherry, to help with the almost-continuous solo part. As Sherry revealed, Carter would fax through a couple of pages; Sherry would practice and learn them, then go round to see Carter. Notwithstanding the prowess of Yo-Yo Ma, it was Sherry who gave this commanding performance of the work’s European première. Joining the piano, double (piano & harpsichord), violin, oboe and clarinet concertos, the 22-minute one for cello immediately impresses as a major work, beautifully written for the soloist, the cello heard continuously throughout the seven sections, beginning and ending alone.

The opening ’Drammatico’ is like a recitative, interrupted by massive orchestral chords. The cello timbre is akin to the opening of the Elgar concerto, sonorous and stately and, whilst completely individual in Carter’s late style, it does not rely on sound effects: this is lyrical writing and intensely musical. There is a taut, immediately graspable logic in the cello’s sinewy line, with snatches of themes emerging that are only later recognisable as a foreshadowing of the final section.The concerto develops through the ensuing ’Allegro appassionato’ and into the quirky pitchless percussion and harp-accompanied ’Giocoso’ (Carter meets Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony second movement perhaps). Then the music slows in the next three sections – ’Lento’-’Maestoso’-’Tranquillo’ – to form the emotional core that becomes more hectic in the final section – ’Allegro fantastico’ – which is somewhat akin to a scherzo.But the last orchestral climax is not the final word, which is left to the cellist with a pizzicato quip. In a word, brilliant, and brilliantly played.

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