Concert review

BBC SO / Oliver Knussen Royal Albert Hall, London PROM 13, Sunday July 25th, 1999

Oliver Knussen's Proms are always worth waiting for. Not only is the repertoire invariably interesting and well chosen in context, but the level of playing and interpretation is comparable with the best of the orchestras heard during the season.

Sibelius is not a composer one would have associated with Knussen, although the control of momentum to be found in the Finnish master's mature symphonies and tone poems is a quality put to good use in Knussen's own Horn Concerto. A single-movement work of barely 15 minutes duration, it is scored for large forces and replete with recollections of the soundworlds of composers from the late-Romantic/early-Modernist eras, rather than specific quotations. Knussen's music is electic in the best sense: however allusive in manner, it never sounds other than personal, and the concerto extends this onto a relatively large canvas. David Pyatt proved more than equal to the demands of the work, written for Barry Tuckwell and featured by him in his Proms farewell concert three years ago.

Hear his performance, more reigned-in than Pyatt's, on an excellent CD of Knussen's more recent orchestral work (Deutsche Grammophon 449 572-2GH  purchase).

But to return to Sibelius, and the Prelude and First Suite from his music to The Tempest; a rarity in the concert-hall, and not simply because of its ample (for Sibelius) orchestral outlay. The suite consists of a sequence of pungent vignettes and mood pieces, frequently in the lighter manner in which Sibelius excelled in his later years; at other times shot-through with the nature mysticism that was equally characteristic - The Oak Tree is as rarefied as anything in the last two symphonies or Tapiola. Knussen appeared to relish this music more for its intrinsic sound than its dramatic connotations, giving the fascinating range of sonorities their head, not least in the extrordinary Prelude which replaced the storm and shipwreck prologue in the 1925 Copenhagen production. Had the programme given the composer as one of the doyens of the post-war avant garde, how many would have demurred?

Stravinsky transformed the nostalgic warmth of Sibelius' 1911 Canzonetta into a bizarre kind of salon music in his 1963 transcription for wind-based ensemble. It was diverting occasional piece, and an admirable foil to the masterly Orchestral Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley which followed. Like the majority of Stravinsky's late works, this is terse, concentrated music. Having so abstract an idea for the 'theme' enables Stravinsky to make the variation process as fluid as he pleases: in particular, the three 12-part variations encapsulate a whole new world of sound and feeling. As has become customary, Knussen played the work a second time; a faster, rougher, but even more gripping interpretation. Judge the piece for yourself on Knussen's seminal disc of late Stravinsky (447 068-2GH purchase).

Last but not least to Magnus Lindberg, and his Aura - in memoriam Witold Lutoslawski, a major work of 1994, new to London. Lindberg has developed a (by no means uncommon) habit of marking off stylistic periods with a large-scale statement. 1985's Kraft was a breakthrough piece, transferring his investigations into rhythm and harmony onto the largest scale. The following decade saw a gradual move - always governed by musical considerations - away from such complexity to music of more concrete outlines and a tangible, almost symphonic momentum. Aura could be approached as a four-movement symphony, were it not for the free mutability, rather than systematic development of ideas across its 33 minutes. Yet the ideas are distinctive and rich in potential, using the large orchestral forces with flair, but also with the degree of restraint necessary to give the work its cohesiveness. The ebding crystallizes the music's intentions with poetic finality. Aura has been recorded by Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra for release on Deutsche Grammophon in due course. In the meantime, Finlandia has an excellent 2CD set of earlier works, including the notorious Kraft, available at a temptingly cheap price in its Meet the Composer series (0630-19756-2) purchase, while some of Lindberg's recent orchestral showpieces get persuasive treatment from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Ondine ODE911-2  purchase). One has the impression, though, that Aura represents a musical and stylistic highpoint such as Lindberg will only equal some way into the future.


Richard Whitehouse

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