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 Britten,Colin Matthews and Elgar: Leila Josefowicz (violin) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Oliver Knussen, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 30.9 2009 (CT)

Benjamin Britten –
Canadian Carnival
Colin Matthews –
Violin Concerto (Feeney Trust commission: world premiere)

Edward Elgar – Falstaff

One doesn’t have to look too far to find several connections running through the all British programme presented by the CBSO and guest conductor Oliver Knussen to a somewhat modestly full Symphony Hall last Wednesday evening. Knussen and Matthews have been close musical allies for many years with Knussen having been something of a champion for Matthews’ music both on and off the conducting podium, whilst both musicians have links to Benjamin Britten.

For Colin Matthews the link is a very direct one. He has been closely involved with the Britten Estate over a long period and in his younger years, worked closely with Britten himself as well as Imogen Holst, who was herself a long term Snape resident. Oliver Knussen has resided in Aldeburgh for a good many years now and also has close links to the Aldeburgh Festival.

The choice of Britten’s Canadian Carnival to open the concert then was entirely appropriate and one that ultimately begged the question as to why it is that this colourful, unashamedly tuneful and delightfully airy “Canadian pot-pourri” is not better known that it is. Britten weaves a succession of French-Canadian folk tunes into a rhapsody that makes a very clear reference to the wide open spaces of North America and more specifically, the music of his close friend Copland in what could be thought of as a kind of North American “A Time There Was...”

From the magical, shimmering strings and cymbals of the opening bars, over which floats an ethereal off- stage trumpet, to the raucous fun of the barn dance that follows, both orchestra and conductor took full advantage of the sense of festive fun in the music, coupled with the wonderful transparency and atmosphere of Britten’s scoring. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

The latest in a long line of distinguished commissions financed by the Feeney Trust, the Violin Concerto of Colin Matthews is a work that has seen a long period of gestation since its initial conception in 2006. That gestation has been informed by the knowledge that Leila Josefowicz was to be the soloist and Colin Matthews has indicated that the close collaboration that has ensued between composer and performer during the composition process has been critical to the direction and content of the finished work.

Cast in two movements of roughly equal length, Matthews uses a scaled down orchestra of twelve violins (thirty six strings in total) and conventional woodwind but just seven brass instruments, the usual trumpets being ousted in favour of the softer tones of two flugel horns. A colourful percussion section includes a notable part for piano in the second movement.

These modest orchestral forces are utilised with a combination of intimacy and immensely skilful colouristic effect as in the first movement, the solo violin alternates long, often ecstatic high lying solo lines which grow inexorably in intensity, with passages of arabesque and whirling, mini cyclones of virtuosity. In contrast, the ominous slow tolling of the orchestral background in the second movement slowly gains in tempo as the soloist proceeds from the relative stasis of the opening bars to a conclusion of frenetic, feverish activity.

Leila Josefowicz was a startlingly engaging, often mesmeric presence on the platform, performing the extraordinary feat of playing what is a highly demanding solo part entirely from memory. Every gesture, both musical and physical, expression and movement emphasised her empathy with and commitment to the music, whilst Oliver Knussen and the players of the CBSO provided sympathetic and beautifully transparent accompaniment that proved the perfect foil to the brilliance of the soloist. It’s encouraging to know that further performances are planned in the wake of what proved to be an impressive first performance indeed.

Knussen’s link to Elgar is perhaps more tenuous than to Britten and Matthews, but it is difficult not to dwell on the physical similarities between Knussen and Elgar’s hero with Knussen’s notably “Falstaffian” appearance being accentuated by his presence as a great bear of a man, his once red beard now tinged with grey. Even if that is where the comparisons stop, there was no denying the vigour, urgency and rigorous attention to detail injected by Knussen and the orchestra into what is a notoriously difficult score to pull off in performance. It was a reading that was perhaps all the more intriguing for the fact that this is not repertoire readily associated with Knussen, yet here he seemed to revel in the many complexities, subtle character references, high jinks, bravado and tragedy of Elgar’s portrait of the Falstaff of Henry IV, imbued as it is with a strong sense of autobiography.

Knussen’s manner on the podium is rarely if ever demonstrative, yet his fleeting but telling glances across the orchestra, his clearly intimate knowledge of the score and the deft way in which he drew the character of Falstaff so vividly off the page drew playing of the highest order from the CBSO and it’s principal players in a performance that brimmed over with life from the very opening statement of the principal theme.

On the evidence here, Knussen’s Elgar never tends to the overly sentimental, but is emotionally direct, driven and viscerally exciting. It is an unlikely affinity but one that was nonetheless clearly on display in Symphony Hall, prompting the intriguing thought of what Knussen would make of the Elgar Symphonies or the Enigma Variations. The fact that he held the score aloft to the audience in a gesture of admiration at the end of the concert was perhaps an indication that he might not be averse to exploring more of Elgar’s canon in the future.

Christopher Thomas

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