Castiglioni Revisited

Elegia in memoria de Anna Frank
Eine Kleine Weihnachtsmusik
The Comedy of Change
Cosi parlo Baldassarre

Anu Komsi (soprano)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-96). Photograph: www.renzocresti.itThe composer’s composer among the Italians of his generation, Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-1996) has been only a vestigial presence in the UK, and it was a pity that there were not more people present for this excellent retrospective by the London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen.

Although weighted towards his later music, two key earlier works were included. “Elegia in memoria de Anna Frank” (1957) is among the first written after Castiglioni abandoned a language of late-Romantic excess for one of Webernian poise and introspection. Too much so, perhaps, to accommodate the extent of the (non-credited) poem from which it derives, for all that the expressive empathy of the musical setting was never in doubt. Much more convincing, though, was Eine Kleine Weihnachtsmusik (1960), an evocation of its subject matter which infers infinitely more than need ever be stated.

Oliver Knussen. Photograph: Clive Barda With his predilection for delicate melodic lines and crystalline textures, Castiglione evinced a natural empathy with the human voice. As is evident in “Così parlò Baldassarre” (1981), whose chaste lyricism and distillation of the text’s expressive ecstasy were palpably conveyed by Anu Komsi. She was no less attuned to the rapt intensity of “Terzina” (1993), these settings of eighteenth-century mystic Gerhard Tersteegan constituting a trilogy of sacred songs uncommon in their expressive eloquence. And if the insubstantial allusiveness of Capriccio (1991) was all too typical of this most understated of composers, then the cumulative vitality of Quickly (1994) – its 23 variations on a whimsical violin theme touching on new possibilities as assuredly as they reiterate well-tried principles – suggest that large-scale formal structures were more than within Castiglioni’s grasp around the time of his death.

Throughout this conspectus, Oliver Knussen inspired the Sinfonietta to no mean feats of virtuosity and dexterity – qualities equally evident in the concert premiere of Julian Anderson’s The Comedy of Change (2009). Conceived as a ballet for the Rambert Dance Company, this score is as unpredictable, even unexpected, as can be the process of evolution. A process such as the opening section might represent in miniature, while the second and third, then fourth and fifth sections (each pair being played without a break) could allude to aspects in the process of ‘becoming’, before the sixth section brings an elegy of sustained emotional import, while the seventh rounds-off the overall sequence by instilling earlier aspects with new expressive potential. Arresting as the ballet should prove when toured by Rambert over the coming months, the score seems certain to enjoy a life of its own.

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