Oliver Knussen – Composer Portrait (1 November)

Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
Prayer Bell Sketch, Op.29
Rosary Songs, Op.9
Symphony in One Movement, Op.5
Symphony No.2, Op.7
Symphony No.3, Op.18
Trumpets, Op.12
Variations, Op.24
Whitman Settings, Op.25a

Lucy Shelton (soprano)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Oliver Knussen has been well served in his 50th birthday year, with evenings of his chamber music on the South Bank and his opera double-bill at the Proms. The present concert featured several of his symphonic works.

Symphonic in the case of Knussen does not necessarily equate with symphony. The designated ’First Symphony’ – with which the teenage composer made headlines when conducting its premiere back in 1968 – has long been withdrawn, and what was once known as ’Concerto or Orchestra’ (1969) has now effectively taken its place as Symphony in One Movement. How far revision has overhauled the work is unclear – but the music’s stylistic range, drawing in composers as diverse as Bernstein and Sibelius within its closely-argued serial working and including a jazzy piano cadenza written with André Previn in mind, is a young person’s confident response to the music he was then absorbing.

Engaging, but the vocal Second Symphony (1971) is on an altogether higher level of achievement. The rarefied, almost pointillist treatment of Sylvia Plath’s “Edge” is surrounded by settings of Georg Trakl whose translucency of texture is built from myriad intricate details. And the finale’s emergence from an A major triad, which so annoyed certain commentators three decades ago, now sounds so cannily prepared by the freely serial writing that precedes it as to be all but inevitable.

These two works were prefaced by the scintillating virtuosity of Flourish with Fireworks (1988), a musical play on motifs from Stravinsky’s early showpiece which results in a far finer piece. After the first interval, a rare outing for Rosary Songs (1972) – not so much a follow-up to the Second Symphony as a distillation of its thinking. The ominous atmosphere of the three Trakl poems are conveyed by a vocal line recalling Schoenberg at his most expressionist, and instrumental writing both audacious and refined. If the far more demonstrative writing of Trumpets (1975) seems closer to the direction Knussen’s music was to take, this only confirms the inherent diversity both of his response to Trakl and of his music at all stages of his career.

In between, two very different piano works: the hard-edged motivic consistency of Variations (1989) and the Feldmanesque resonance of the Takemitsu tribute, Prayer Bell Sketch (1997), each played with unobtrusive virtuosity by Nicolas Hodges.

Then, after the second interval, Lucy Shelton capped her contribution to the evening with the Whitman Settings (1991). Heard in their lavish orchestral version, and given the musical rendering of the poetic imagery, a four-movement vocal symphony results; each song charged with the contrast between formal concreteness and expressive freedom.

It was with the Third Symphony (1979) that the concert ended. Appropriately so, in that this remains Knussen’s most characteristic and influential score. Indeed, the ideas that underpin its impetuous opening movement and powerfully cumulative successor constitute something of a ’lingua franca’ for a subsequent generation of British composers, though none has matched the terse cohesion that gives the work its unity-within-diversity – and hence its impact. 23 years on, it continues to inspire and intrigue. With the BBCSO in commanding form, this was an absorbing portrait-concert.

  • Concert broadcast tonight, Monday 4 November, on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30

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