Proms 2011 – BBCSO/Knussen – Pacific 231 … Der Wein … Inverno in-ver … La mer

Pacific 231 – Mouvement symphonique No.1
Pastorale d’été
There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook
Der Wein
Inverno in-ver
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Claire Booth (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Oliver Knussen at the BBC Proms, 2009. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodolouThis BBC Prom went through various changes, but the resulting programme was still a cohesive and intriguing one. A brace of Honegger’s most familiar orchestral pieces provided contrast in itself – the steam-age toccata that is Pacific 231 (1923), here rendered as a remorseless accelerando up to its rhetorical denouement, being followed by the wistful rumination that is Pastorale d’été (1920) with its poetic solos for horn and woodwinds; each of them done to a turn. From here to the sombre ‘impression’ of Frank Bridge’s There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1927) is no great distance conceptually, and justice was similarly done to its poignant succession of woodwind soliloquies – several of them eloquently underpinned by harp and afforded expressive context by a larger body of strings than is usually the case with this most inward of the composer’s mature masterpieces yet, as might have been expected with Oliver Knussen at the helm, textures emerged with the utmost clarity.

After this, Berg’s concert aria Der Wein (1929) sounded the more sensuous. Stefan George’s translation of Charles Baudelaire’s verse might seem to sacrifice something of the original’s enervated decadence but, with the music as potently realised as here, the heady traversal from the spirit via the sexuality to the solitariness as induced by this age-old elixir was as fervently conveyed as it can ever have been. Claire Booth. Photograph: Booth coped ably with the vocal line: as yet her voice lacks the last degree of timbral depth to do full justice to this most dark-hued of soprano writing, for all that its soaring ecstasy and emotional despondency were fully in evidence.

After the interval, Knussen continued his exploration of Niccoló Castiglioni’s music (following revelatory concerts with the London Sinfonietta) with Inverno in-ver (1973). Considered a turning-point in the Italian composer’s development, these 11 brief musical poems centre on images of Winter with all their qualities of frozenness, decay and silence. It’s hardly a cumulative sequence, but it is one that generates an oblique momentum via its concentration on motivic essentials with a singular orchestration of woodwind solos and multi-divided strings along with a percussion component of painstaking intricacy. So etiolated a soundworld risked being engulfed in the RAH expanse, but salient detail registered with such needle-sharp clarity and the music’s stark immediacy was never compromised. An intriguing and rewarding discovery, making one anticipate the more keenly Knussen’s featuring of Castiglioni’s Concerto for Orchestra during the BBCSO’s schedule this autumn.

Knussen’s orchestral concerts have been pointedly sparing in terms of ‘standard’ repertoire, but Debussy’s La mer (1905) is a natural inclusion in all respects – not least the present context. There were many felicities here: the burnished timbre of divided cellos mid-way through the opening movement, the wistful dispersal of detail at the end of its successor and the bewitching emergence of the main theme during the finale being only some of these. Maybe this account tended to eschew the heightened emotional contrasts built into the musical fabric, but as the chorale-theme emerged as a clinching apotheosis, an underlying majesty was never in doubt.

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