BBCSO/Knussen Leila Josefowicz – Jubilee

Composer Portrait
Colin Matthews
Duo No.3
Enigma No.1
Moto perpetuo
Musicians from the Royal Academy of Music
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 16
Sonance Severance 2000
Colin Matthews
Violin Concerto [London premiere]
Outblaze the Sky
Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Rheinische Kirmestänze
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 July, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Oliver Knussen at the BBC Proms, 2009. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodolouOliver Knussen can be relied on for imaginative but also intelligent concert planning, and so it proved with this Prom. A three-part programme lasting around 80 minutes might appear extravagant, even indulgent, but the sequence came together as naturally and as provokingly as intended.

At the centre of the second part came the recent Violin Concerto (2009) by Colin Matthews. Good to know that, since its premiere in Birmingham last September, Leila Josefowicz has taken the piece to four European countries, ensuring it a public profile often not granted to new music. Stretching back five decades, the works commissioned by the Feeney Trust amount to a conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements (each around 10 minutes) twice elides between slower and faster music with understated intent, thus enabling its successor to open-out the expression via a gradual acceleration from measured intensity to a headlong propulsion by the close.

Leila Josefowicz. Photograph: Henry FairThe work was superbly realised (from memory) by Josefowicz, whose projection of a solo part virtuosic for all its absence of display stood out against an orchestra that features a diverse percussion section (including the lujon, a resonating mallet instrument more normally encountered in jazz) and yielded an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Prior to the concert, a sequence of miniatures reinforced Colin Matthews’s credentials working on a smaller scale. Cellist Jonathan Rees had the measure of the resourceful Third Duo and ominous atmosphere of the First Enigma, while violinist Charlotte Reid judged momentum in Chaconne as astutely as the coursing energy of Moto perpetuo. Best, though, were the fugitive manner of scorrevole and limpid poise of Calmo as realised by violist Robert Ames. Pianist Chris Hopkins was attentive in support, not least when partnering Reid in an eloquent transcription of the final ‘Sonnet’ from Britten’s Nocturne.

Appearing on either side of the Violin Concerto were pieces by the senior and upcoming generations of British composers. Written for the re-opening of Cleveland’s Severance Hall, Harrison Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000 (1999) built in an implacable crescendo to a vast climax – from out of which an arresting trumpet motif is left resounding into silence. Very different in means and intent, Luke Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky (2006) takes its cue from D. M. Thomas’s novel for a study in texture and sonority reaching an emotional apex which feels the more telling for its understatement.

In the outer portions came ‘celebrations’ far removed from each other in time and ethos. Written to mark the 125th-anniversary of Hanover Opera, Jubilee (1977) was Stockhausen’s last autonomous work for orchestra and a fine (and, at barely 15 minutes, relatively succinct) instance of the modal-based harmonies and the formularised melodies of his later music. Although there are interludes for offstage instruments and a measure of amplification for a handful of those on the stage, the approach is restrained compared to earlier works – the correlation between slow-moving solemnity and fast-paced extroversion elegantly judged at a textural as well as temporal level. The outcome, too, is conclusive, even affirmative in a matter-of-fact way that suggests this most far-reaching of modern musical mystics was far from averse to writing a ‘showpiece’ pure, if not so simple when the occasion arose.

Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony made the most of this unduly belated (it was originally scheduled for the 1980 season!) of Proms premieres, as they did the more immediate but not necessarily simpler demeanour of Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony (1850). Knussen’s infrequent forays into the ‘standard’ repertoire are seldom found wanting, and so it proved in a performance that made light of the work’s supposedly congested orchestration or its foursquare rhythmic profile. The sheer buoyancy of the first movement was sustained through a combative development and surging coda, while the scherzo combined affection with ingenuity in the subtle developing variation drawn from its Ländler rhythm. The intermezzo that follows was deftly dispatched, yet not so as to dilute its wistful charm, while the ceremonial evocation of the fourth movement was powerfully drawn; Knussen mindful not to confuse the solemn with the lethargic, with an almost palpable shudder in those fateful closing chords. After which the finale effortlessly lightened the mood with its bustling festivity, as elements from earlier in the work resurface on the way to a conclusion no less uninhibited for being so precisely prepared.

A reading to savour, then, and Knussen had laid the ground in ingenious fashion with a rare outing for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s orchestration of traditional Rhenish dance-tunes. Rheinische Kirmestänze (1962) confirms this most earnest of composers as unfailingly adept in the domain of light music – for all that the inane contrasts between instruments at the extremes of their register prefigures the stylistic meltdown of the ‘ballet noir’ Musique pour les soupers de Roi Ubu only four years hence. Knussen and the BBCSO dispatched it all with relish, of course.

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