Fountains of Rome … Virga … Jeu de cartes … Islamey

Fountains of Rome
Horn Concerto
Jeu de cartes
Balakirev, orch. Casella

Martin Owen (horn)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Oliver Knussen. ©Clive BardaOliver Knussen’s programme for this year’s Proms season was a typical mixture of the new and not so familiar. Admittedly the ‘new’ component featured no first performances (his Cleveland Pictures not yet ready), but Helen Grime’s Virga (2007) was among the successes of the London Symphony Orchestra’s “UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers’ Scheme” and deserved its high-profile revival. Ostensibly describing the “precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the ground”, the piece parallels between textural and linear music with no mean subtlety; combining these before arriving at what is less a climax than a potential new departure. Whether or not Grime extends it further, Virga is a notable orchestral debut and one whose intricate yet finely-judged content the BBC Symphony Orchestra rendered with some conviction.

Martin OwenThere followed a welcome revival for Oliver Knussen’s Horn Concerto (1994). Eventfulness is the watchword for this 12-minute single movement – one that proceeds from the commanding ‘Intrada’ that sets in motion an ingenious tonal trajectory expounded in the expressively charged ‘Fantastico’ before culminating in the equally unpredictable ‘Cadenza’; after which, a restive ‘Envoi’ ambivalently recalls the opening gestures and so brings the work full-circle. Previous performances at the Proms have featured the inimitable contributions of Barry Tuckwell (for whom it was written) and David Pyatt, but Martin Owen was no less equal to its demands as he galvanised the orchestral contribution.

The rest of the concert was testament to Knussen’s prowess. Fountains of Rome (1916) may be less demonstrative than are its ‘Pines’ and ‘Festivals’ successors in Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’, but it conveys the extent of his skill as orchestral illustrator more completely than either. As keenly as Knussen evoked the capriciousness of Triton at mid-morning and the splendour of Trevi at midday, it was the veiled mystery of the fountain of the Valle Giulia and sensuous charm of that at the Villa Medici which resonated in the memory – the composer here tempering a tendency to overkill with an expressive ambiguity such as he only intermittently allowed to infiltrate his music.

Much the same could be said for Stravinsky – not least with so blithely neo-classical a concoction as Jeu de cartes (1936) in which, more than in any other of his ballets, the effectiveness of the choreography sustains the interest of the music. Heard on its own, the latter can seem little more than an exercise in contrapuntal dexterity, and it was precisely this aspect where Knussen was so successful – emphasising motivic ingenuity within the score to an extent that second-guessing the interplay of its ideas in sound became a corollary to the ‘deals’ that might otherwise unfold in a danced performance. At 20 minutes there can have been fewer more rapid performances, yet such was the ebb and flow of tension and placing of detail that the work’s overall coherence was never for a moment in doubt.

‘Bravura’ more obviously describes the character of Islamey – whether this be the outsize demands of Balakirev’s piano fantasy or the 1907 orchestral transcription Alfredo Casella made three years before the Russian composer’s death. Apparently Balakirev openly approved of the Italian’s treatment: understandably so given that, while not overly Russian-sounding (an absence for which the later orchestral transcription by Sergei Lyapunov makes handsome amends), Casella’s orchestration has the measure both of the piece’s alternating vigour and languor, as well as that virtuosity which is hardly less evident at a compositional than an executive level; a virtuosity to which the BBCSO responded in ample measure.

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