Prom 56: Oliver Knussen conducts Goehr, Grime, Debussy and his own Third Symphony

Composer Portrait
Helen Grime
Ten Miniatures*
To see the summer sky**
Musicians from the Royal College of Music: *Mayuko Yamashita (piano); **Joseph Devalle (violin) & Natasha Silver (viola); ***Amy Green (soprano saxophone) & Jennifer Hughes (piano)
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 56
Alexander Goehr
Metamorphosis/Dance, Op.36
Oliver Knussen
Symphony No.3, Op.18
Helen Grime
Night Songs [BBC commission: world premiere]
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien [complete incidental music]

Claire Booth (soprano), Clare McCaldin & Polly May (mezzo-sopranos)

New London Chamber Choir
BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Oliver Knussen at a rehearsal with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Photo: Guardian/David SillitoeMaybe Oliver Knussen’s annual Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was not best suited to this Saturday-night slot, but the programme was as substantial and well-planned as ever. The first half continued on from the final Proms Saturday Matinee in featuring works by two composers who this year mark their eightieth and sixtieth birthdays respectively.

If not exactly a showpiece, Alexander Goehr’s Metamorphosis/Dance (1974, first conducted by Bernard Haitink) is among his most engaging orchestral works – its inspiration in the Odyssian myth of Circe transforming Ulysses’s followers into swine then, after an amorous intervention from the latter, back again is reflected in a series of eight variations which de-accelerate to a point of virtual stasis before regaining momentum on the way to a resolute apotheosis; an inquisitive refrain meanwhile marking off this progress with its ironic asides. If this account did not quite persuade one that the work’s second half is as cumulatively impulsive as it ought to be, the subtlety and textural resourcefulness of Goehr’s writing hardly failed to impress.

Alexander Goehr. Photo: Etan TalBegun at much the same time, Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony (1979) was considerably longer in the making, yet the sheer variety and inventiveness of this 15-minute score – among the most influential by a British composer after Michael Tippett – are undimmed 33 years after its world premiere (at the Proms) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (and who was present this evening). Whether in the hectic accumulation of activity of its first half, or the more gradual emergence of incident over its longer second half towards an exhilarating climax then chorale-based apotheosis and return to the spectral opening, the piece remains a milestone of symphonic thinking from the post-war era and the BBCSO did the composer proud. One can only hope that its long-awaited successor will at some point appear.

Knussen has been consistent in his advocacy of Helen Grime’s music thus far, not least Virga, and the premiere of Night Songs (2012) provided a welcome opportunity to hear this most fastidious among younger British composers working on a substantial canvas. Not that that applied to the piece’s length – its resourceful interplay of shifting timbres and superimposed tempos unfolding in just over five minutes, though Knussen used the apparent absence of his glasses as a ruse for a second performance which, though only a matter of a few seconds longer, gave the music audibly greater room to expand as the fading echoes of its only significant tutti passage resounded across the evocative textures towards a deft final dispersal.

Prior to the concert, Helen Grime (in conversation with Tom Service) had featured in a Composer Portrait which provided a welcome platform for three of her pieces on a smaller scale. Not their least impressive aspect was the way that she integrates the musical content so the individual sections cohere effortlessly into an overall continuity: thus the elegant piano vignettes of 10 Miniatures (2009), the violin and viola’s juxtaposition of eloquence and energy over the four movements of To see the summer sky (2009), and the no less engaging repartee between saxophone and piano in the three movements of Shadowplay (2011). The performances, by musicians from the Royal College of Music, were as alert and attentive as this music warranted.

If the final work in the main concert comfortably outlasted in terms of time taken the other three combined, it was still welcome in providing a rare chance to hear the entirety of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s verse-drama Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). An even rarer chance, moreover, to hear it without those lengthy passages of narration which, however idiomatically spoken, too often get in the way of what the music is saying with far greater purpose and subtlety than the over-wrought and self-regarding verse ever could. What resulted was almost an hour’s worth of mature Debussy that, if inevitably more discursive than the piano and orchestral music from the same period, nonetheless touches on aspects of his thinking as were seldom, if ever set out so directly and as affectingly as here. To which end, the Preludes to the five acts (or “mansions” as d’Annunzio would have them) find the composer inhabiting his most warmly expressive vein – as well as covering the vast emotional ground between the exalted and introspective with typically understated conviction.

Not that the vocal component was left to chance – with Claire Booth wonderfully pure and liquid of tone in her various incarnations, while Clare McCaldin and Polly May complemented each other ideally as the twins Mark and Marcellian. The combined forces of the New London Chamber Choir and BBC National Chorus of Wales were fully in command of some exacting intonation (whoever said that modally as opposed to chromatically inflected choral writing was easier to bring off), while Knussen secured consistently scrupulous and sensitive playing from the BBCSO. A performance, then, such as left one convinced that, whenever this score is to be given complete, this is the format most likely to do it justice.

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