Knussen at 50

Coursing, Op.17
Elegiac Arabesques, Op.26a
Masks, Op.3
Océan de Terre, Op.10
Ophelia Dances, Op.13
Songs without Voices, Op.26
Two Organa, Op.27
Quasi una Passacaglia # ~
Very Sharp Trumpet Sonata #
Olly Cantus # *
Au Quai #
Dancing Landscape # ~
only two notes for olly (the other five for later) # *
Olly on the Shore ~
Bubo bubo # *
Flourish, with fireflies # *
Light the First Light of Evening # *
Fanfares and Ostinatos ~
Snapshots # *
Fifty Fifty # ~
I suppose a fugue is out of the question? # ~

# World première of London Sinfonietta/Royal Festival Hall co-commissions and birthday gifts from composers

~ Rolf Hind and/or Nicolas Hodges (pianos)

Claire Booth (soprano)

London Sinfonietta
Oliver Knussen
George Benjamin *

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 June, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

There can be little doubt that Oliver Knussen holds a position second to none among composer-conductors of the present era. It was fitting then that his four-year tenure as the London Sinfonietta’s Music Director – he is shortly to become its Conductor Laureate – should (almost) coincide with his 50th birthday, which fell on this very day.

In this celebration of his music and artistic leadership, the works by Knussen himself provided a synopsis of his music over three decades. The capricious flute arabesques, commented on by offstage chimes, of Masks (1969) have a theatricality typical of the era. With Océan de Terre (1973), the Knussen ’sound’, texturally dense and harmonically intricate yet always translucent and often sensuous, is in place. Less a setting of than a commentary around a surrealist poem by Apollinaire, the voice was placed almost too far back in the ensemble – though Claire Booth projected the sense, if not always the meaning, of the vocal line with evident feeling.

The latter 1970s saw some of the works by which Knussen will continue to be known long into the future. The increasing rhythmic agility, culminating in a languorous postlude, of Ophelia Dances (1975) seemed a little temperate on the night, but the propulsive energy of Coursing (1979) was vividly conveyed – a ’Concerto for Chamber Orchestra’ which plays to the Sinfonietta’s strengths now as over twenty years before.

The early 1990s saw a sequence of works where concision does not begin to equate with small-scale or lightweight. Songs without Voices (1992) is a set of four inventive pieces where the vocal-line has been instrumentally rendered. The valedictory fourth number began life as a memorial tribute to Andrzej Panufnik, and it made for an apt juxtaposition to have the original Elegiac Arabesques (1991) – a ruminative dialogue for cor anglais and clarinet – played as an entrée to the longer work. Two Organa (1994) encapsulates Knussen’s mature idiom: the musical box-like whimsicality of ’Notre Dame des Jouets’ followed by the incident-packed and emotionally ambivalent ’Organum’. Few composers could penetrate such differing soundworlds with this technical finesse.

In what was a lengthy and unwieldy three-part concert (though nearly everyone stayed the course), the 50th birthday tributes were as numerous as they were pleasurable. From among the piano solo and duo tributes that formed a pre-concert event, Julian Anderson’s teasingly elusive Quasi una Passacaglia and Detlev Glanert’s quixotic Dancing Landscape were more than just ’occasional pieces’.

Of the instrumental tributes interspersed among the Knussen items, Elliott Carter’s Au Quai – an engaging discourse for bassoon and viola – and Alexander Goehr’s tribute, a miniature chamber concerto of witty contrasts, were perhaps the highlights; although Augusta Read Thomas’s Light the First Light of Evening has enough material for a more developed piece, and would be worth elaborating. George Benjamin, who directed those new pieces requiring a conductor, contributed his insinuating Olly Cantus just before the close.

A fitting commemoration, then, of a veritable ’force for good’ in the often fractured and marginalized world of contemporary music. Even better, Knussen seems once more to be on a roll creatively. Pinchas Zukerman premiered his Violin Concerto earlier this year, and a Fourth Symphony seems at last to be nearing realisation. Taken in conjunction with his conducting activities, the next decade could be the most vital and fulfilling yet.

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