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PROM 35: Chopin arr. Stravinsky, Knussen, Carter, Stravinsky; Pinchas Zukerman (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra; Oliver Knussen (con) Royal Albert Hall, 14th August, 2003 (AR)


As the vast majority of Proms audiences tend to veer towards conservative programmes, it was hardly surprising (though very disappointing) that the Royal Albert Hall was a barely one third full for this concert of modern works. It remains a mystery why the public tend to be put off by the ‘new’, since all music was ‘new’ once: even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring entered into the classical canon soon after its riotous Paris premiere.

Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra opened their programme with Two dances for ‘Les Sylphides’ (1909) by Frederic Chopin, orchestrated by Stravinsky (its first performance at the Proms). Nocturne in A flat major, Op. 32 No.2 came across as pure pastiche of Tchaikovsky ballet music and nothing much else: here Stravinsky had not yet developed his own, distinctive musical voice. Whilst Knussen coaxed the BBC SO to play in a very gentle, delicate manner, all this sensitivity was sabotaged by continuous loud coughing from the Gods which ruined the entire performance.

The Waltz in E flat major, Op. 18, ‘Grande valse brillante’ was strikingly reminiscent of Berlioz/Weber ‘Invitation to the Dance’ and here Knussen conducted with an agile lilt and got some spicy woodwind playing that really danced along. Having said that there was something rather boring about this music and it seemed difficult to grasp why the conductor chose to conduct these early, immature works in the first place.

Ninety-five this December, a youthful looking Elliott Carter sat in the front stalls listening intently to the European premiere of his Boston Concerto (2002). The composer said of his score in the programme notes: "The marvellous Boston Symphony was very important to me in the mid 1920s and 1930s as a Harvard student. At that time I went every Saturday and stood on the steps of Symphony Hall for a ‘rush seat’ in the balcony …I am so grateful for those years and I have, I hope, written a ‘thank you’ piece – Boston Concerto. It throws a spotlight on each of the remarkable sections of the orchestra, surrounding them with short orchestral pizzicato sections for the entire group, not unlike the plan for a concerto grosso…"

Carter’s restrained and refined work is not in the manner of Bartok’s virtuoso Concerto for Orchestra, but a sparse and skeletal structure composed of splinters of stabbing sounds coming from different sections of the orchestra in turn, creating differing levels of sound sensation. While the score is composed of multi-faceted fragments, the composer stitches them together as a unified whole. Carter makes us hear the orchestra from the inside out, allowing us into its depths by treating his musical quilt with fragile chamber-like intricacy; the orchestral textures always had a delicate translucency. The closing passages were deeply moving, with the BBC SO strings taking on a sombre cutting edge. Carter has not composed a flashy orchestral show-piece but an exercise in the economy of composition which brings out the subtle nuances, colours and textures of the symphony orchestra. Carter stated: "I hope in this work I have found a way of repaying the debt I owe to the Boston Symphony…" Indeed, he has certainly done this in this celebration of a great orchestra. The sparse audience seemed genuinely enthusiastic towards this complex and illuminating score, and gave the composer an ovation when Knussen invited him to take a bow on the platform

This was the London Premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto (2001-2), which was originally composed for the evening’s soloist, Pinchas Zuckerman. Knussen wrote of this work: "At times the violinist resembles a tightrope walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece." Indeed, the fifteen minute, three-movement, tightly knit structure begins and ends with a tubular-bell and a ‘stratospheric’ violin note.

The opening and closing close of the concerto (signified by the tubular bell death knell) gave the illusion of the music falling back on itself and imploding rather than moving in a linear progression: we had ended up where we begun - and time itself seemed negated; an uncanny experience. Thus, writing about this concerto from the beginning to its end is impossible because it has no beginning or end but an eternal movement of disseminated fragments (reminiscent of Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence). Knussen’s extraordinary contra-concerto goes against the grain of what constitutes a concerto in the strict classical sense of that term. There is no soloist per se as Zuckerman demonstrated, constantly blending his playing with the orchestra and dissolving his sparse sounds into a quiet stroke of a cymbal or gong. Knussen’s subtle scoring was tailor-made for Zuckerman’s subdued and sensitive playing: the intense, economic nature of the orchestral writing complemented the violinist’s extremely taut, razor edged sharpness of tone which indeed resembled "a tightrope walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire."

The concluding work, Igor Stravinsky’s Agon – ballet for twelve dancers (1952-7) was somewhat of an anticlimax after the white- hot intensity of Knussen’s radical work. Like Stravinsky’s Two dances for Les Syphides (1909) heard in part one, Agon came across as sterile, clinical and contrived: formula music analogous to painting by numbers. Like late Picasso, late Stravinsky substitutes radical invention for virtuoso technique. While Knussen’s conducting was measured and economic the performance lacked colour and character, with the BBC SO sounding rather detached and disinterested. Tellingly, the audience also seemed rather bored with this last Stravinsky offering.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Music Renaissance Woman, Sue Knussen (20 May 1949 – 23 March 2003).

Alex Russell



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