Oliver Knussen 50th Birthday Concert

Debussy arr. Hesketh
Deux Arabesques [first performance]
’a song of crocuses and lightening’
Triptych [Autumnal for violin and piano; Sonya’s Lullaby for solo piano; Cantata for oboe and string trio]
Whitman Settings
Cantilena [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
Poetry Nearing Silence*

Rosemary Hardy (soprano)
The Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 March, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

It was unfortunate that Oliver Knussen was unable to attend this 50th Birthday Concert, especially as the programme was well chosen to reflect his own music and his influence on younger composers. The performances confirmed that, after a period of unsettled personnel, the Nash has really come together again as an ensemble.

Of the Knussen pieces, especially welcome was a complete performance of the chamber Triptych that evolved between 1975 and ’ 78 in response to the compositional issues thrown up by the in-progress Third Symphony. The three works form a natural sequence: the sustained chordal writing and intricate textures of Autumnal; the harmonically-amorphous pianism, given focus by the barcarolle-like rhythmic underlay, of Sonya’s Lullaby; and the increasingly charged discourse, culminating in a mesmeric slow coda, of Cantata. Violinist Marianne Thorsen, pianist Ian Brown and oboist Gareth Hulse brought character and conviction to each piece in turn.

From 1991, Knussen’s Whitman Settings are a present-day model of how to write complex but communicative music for voice and piano. The songs, each involving a discursive analogy between the natural and the human world, persuasively combine rhetoric and lyricism in the vocal line with idiomatic piano writing which instantly suggests instrumental connotations (the songs were arranged for orchestra the following year). Rosemary Hardy over-projected them just a little in the admittedly difficult Purcell Room acoustic while capturing their spirit of questing imagination in full measure.

As to the remaining works, Kenneth Hesketh’s chamber transcription of Debussy’s Arabesques made them sound closer stylistically to early Faur√©, even Delius. Simon Holt’s Raymond Carver setting, a 1989 memorial tribute to Michael Vyner, is a reminder of the composer’s plangent and distinctive vocal writing. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s newly-commissioned Cantilena pits a virtually continuous oboe line against writing for string quartet that accelerates then winds down in motion with what felt like ’golden-section’ precision. An attractive if somewhat anonymous piece.

Whereas Julian Anderson’s Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) is possibly his most individual statement – certainly his most idiosyncratic in the quixotic continuity of its eight short movements, pungently scored for combinations of seven instruments. Subtitled ’Divertimento after Tom Philips’, the work draws on the artist’s novel-derived word selection and pictorial glosses to assemble a sequence which ranges from the blues-inflected waltz of ’Know Vienna’ to the pithy Janacek-homage of ’in Bohemia, screwing’ and the Enescu (?) evocation of ’in Carpathia, you cared for new things’, before the sombre clarinet theme of ’Coda: tall rain rattled over Paris’. Vibrantly played under the direction of Martyn Brabbins, it brought the concert to a stimulating conclusion.

  • The Nash Ensemble pays a 70th-birthday tribute to Alexander Goehr this Wednesday, 27 March, at 7.30 in the Purcell Room. As well as pieces by Goehr, there is music by Dallapiccola, Knussen and Stravinsky
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk

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