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Liadov, Oliver Knussen, Stravinsky: Martin Owen (horn), Hallé Orchestra/Oliver Knussen (conductor); Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3.2.2011 (MC)


Liadov: Baba-Yaga, Op. 56 (1905)
Knussen: The Way to Castle Yonder, Op. 21a (1988/90)
Knussen: Horn Concerto, Op. 28 (1994, rev. 1995)
Stravinsky: The Fairy’s Kiss (Le baiser de la fée) complete ballet (1928)


It’s been a while since I went to a concert where the music didn’t contain any melodies that I recognised. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that. In addition it was my first time at a concert where a complete work was repeated. With much unfamiliar music this Hallé concert was a voyage of discovery for most people.

Conductor Oliver Knussen opened with Anatoly Liadov’s Baba-Yaga: A Picture to a Russian Folk-Tale a miniature tone-poem of slightly over three minutes duration. Liadov (or Lyadov) wasn’t the most industrious of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupils and his output other than piano pieces is very slight. I love this atmospheric and mysterious clump of symphonic sound and so did Knussen who announced that he would conduct Baba-Yaga again. It would have made real sense for either of Liadov’s tone poems The Enchanted Lake or Kikimora to have been on the programme.

Certainly an original compositional voice Knussen still remains best known today for his two chamber operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! Based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s books both scores were written over twenty five years ago. Remarkable and captivating writing from Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder is a short symphonic arrangement of the orchestral music from Higglety Pigglety Pop! The ethereal opening cast an agreeable atmospheric spell and I enjoyed the eerie climaxes, roaringly terrifying.

At the pre-concert talk horn soloist Martin Owen described Knussen’s Horn Concerto as probably the finest horn concerto written in the last thirty years. Taking around thirteen minutes to perform Knussen designed the work in a single movement span. This fine lyrical concerto with a dark undercurrent demands wide dynamics and considerable expression from the soloist. Martin Owen who has played the piece many times showed masterly control in a highly sympathetic performance that was often beguiling.

The centrepiece of the concert Stravinsky’s complete ballet score The Fairy’s Kiss (Le baiser de la fée) remains a relatively neglected work. For The Fairy’s Kiss Stravinsky adapted and elaborated on a number of Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces and songs basing the scenario on the tale The Ice Maiden by Hans Christian Andersen. The Fairy’s Kiss contrasts starkly with the dissonance and driving spiky rhythms of his earlier phase. Knussen navigated the Hallé assuredly through Stravinsky’s predominately light, lean and lucid textures. The orchestra played wonderfully as a fully integrated unit. Gloriously toned the well balanced string sound has become a feature of the Hallé. The brass especially the trumpets and trombones sounded stunning in the Bridgewater acoustic with the horns occasionally playing a touch too loud. Stravinsky’s writing ensured that the woodwind section had plenty of opportunities to shine with clarinettist Lynsey Marsh once again in superb form. Without seeing the actual ballet in progress The Fairy’s Kiss doesn’t stand too well on its own as pure orchestral music. Some six years after the ballet’s première in Paris, Stravinsky arranged the ballet music into a shorter Divertimento. Perhaps we should have heard that instead.

Michael Cookson


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