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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 61, Oliver Knussen, Anton Webern, Julian Anderson: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Claire Booth (soprano), Oliver Knussen (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 29.08.2007 (AO)


Not all newly-written music is “new” music, and some newly-written music is so anodyne it's hardly “music” at all. This Prom proved that good new music can be popular without being “populist”. The debate about the BBC and late night Proms isn't really an issue, as much as why concerts like this, by undeniably top level composers, don't get more prominence. This would have been a great opportunity to reach those very audiences which may think serious music isn't for them, because this really was lively, exciting and accessible. The Proms are the phenomenon they are because they lead, rather than follow, popular taste. Perhaps it's optimistic, but raising the bar through quality may be the secret. One of the greatest Proms traditions is to bring the “best”, and here we had two of the finest composers in this country, performing their own music with an ensemble closely connected with their work. Given prime time coverage, this Prom really would have expanded the audience, not just for the genre, but for classical music as a whole. Ultimately, it's that noble goal that makes the Proms, and the BBC, a unique and integral part of this country's heritage, and its gift to the world.

Oliver Knussen's Ophelia Dances isn't newly written, but remains fresh. In many ways, it's more difficult to compose a short, lucid piece like this, than, say, a massive blockbuster, because each idea is thrown into sharp focus. But even at an early age, Knussen's gift for bell-like clarity allows him to condense a lot in seven minutes. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with whom he is so closely associated, brought out the fine edge of wildness that lurks within the whimsy.

Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra is hardly “new”, as it was written nearly a hundred years ago.  Each section is as brief and as intense as a haiku. The first rises barely above pianissimo. Short passages on violin and trombone, serve to light up the silences, for, as in a haiku, silences are part of the texture. There's a brief flurry of activity before the piece subsides into the uncanny stillness of the third section, where the calm is shaped by the regular tolling of metallic bells – a detail featured recurrently throughout this carefully designed programme.  There's lots going on here – violins, mandolin, guitar, trumpet, viola, yet the overall effect is delicate and understated.  Again, it's the subtlety that's so thrilling.  At one stage the violin plays three strokes, each bowed differently. It's simple, yet so effective.  Staccato chords energize the final, animated section before it once more evaporates into silence.  Quiet as this music may be, it's not passive. It draws the listener in to engage with what's happening, the silences acting like a blank for one's own response.  It's a two way process, which goes all the way back to early music and to Bach Such involvement goes all he way back to early music and to Bach, for whom music wasn't just a  commodity  but an experience of something greater.  So when Knussen announced he'd conduct it all over again, it was fun to listen again, with memories of the first undimmed.

Knussen's recent Requiem-Songs for Sue has been performed several times since its premiere in 2006.  I've been lucky enough to hear three of at least four British performances, because each time it's yielded new ideas.  This time, Claire Booth was heavily pregnant, and her voice was somewhat compromised, but I'd much rather hear a singer who has a life than one than one who places technical perfection above being human.  In any case, it was rewarding to listen from a non-vocal perspective.  The first song has shrill staccato, expressing tension, but the orchestration flows tenderly, in circular figures towards a kind of calm stasis. The rounded figures felt like abstract depictions of an embrace.  This image reflects too in the intimate instrument doublings.  This isn't so much a group of separate songs as a curving arc of sound and feeling.  Silences, here too, are part if the structure, like white spaces in a watercolour, extending the music into the imagination.  As a meditation on someone loved who has passed beyond the physical, these voids are not empty, but charged with memory.

If this performance was not quite as focused as the South bank performance earlier this year, Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group made up for it with a vivid performance of Julian Anderson's ‘Book of Hours ‘ This is ravishingly rich, gloriously beautiful music, inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts. Just as medieval scribes built up pictures in layers of intense, glowing colour, so Anderson meticulously writes level over level of sound, so all is heard together in a kind of shimmering haze, even though the core is a cell of four basic notes. Entries and endings aren't as critical as the overall sense of many things happening together, which gives the piece the sense of vibrating movement. Thus even when Anderson builds up a raucous cacophony Knussen keeps the chromatic details clear. Extra refinements are added, like gilding, such as the tolling of bells, and particularly lovely clarinet parts. Luscious as this music is, Anderson is far too sharp to let it slip into a self-indulgent feast. Right from the beginning, computer generated metallic sounds murmur under the glory: what they symbolize, I have no idea, but they add a deeper, thought-provoking edge. Lovely as illuminated manuscripts may be, they were made in an era of suffering and war, and the idea of a “world overturn'd” is common in medieval cosmology. Anderson is making a definite point because he divides the piece into two sections, the second starting with a strange fugue of distorted mechanical sound. This wasn't pre recorded tape, but actual “performance” with the composer himself working the controls on the mixing desk, interacting in  real-time with the orchestra. The harshness had a strange almost melodic quality, as if it were trying to mimic the music. Yet the lyricism returned even more firmly before in a joyous, simple dance, all the more lively and vivid as a counter to the electronic roar.

This is magnificently vivid music, and it was performed with real brio. The recording, by Knussen and BCMG on NMC, was for many a “recording of the year” in 2006 and will no doubt continue to sell in healthy numbers because it is very good indeed. If anything this performance was even more animated and immediate than the CD, which is why I'm so sad that this Prom didn't get the high profile status it deserved. Anderson's Book of Hours is completely accessible, yet has artistic integrity. It's also immensely exciting, even for people who think serious music is somehow “difficult”. This Prom was so much fun that it could, effortlessly and economically, convert audiences all over the world to new music, and indeed, to classical music as a whole. 

 Anne Ozorio


Reviews of Anderson's Book of Hours recordings:

Anne Ozorio's review

Hubert Culot's review

A review of Knussen's Requiem-songs for Sue at the South Bank, March 2007 by Anne Ozorio is here.

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