> Oliver Knussen - Chamber Works [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Oliver KNUSSEN (b.1952)
Chamber Works

Songs without Voices Op.26 (1991-2) [10.32]
Whitman Settings Op. 25 (1991) [11.39]
Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh Op.6 (1970/1983) [14.43]
Variations for solo piano Op.24 (1989) [7.09]
Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rainer Maria Rilke Op.23 (1988) [12.07]
Sonya’s Lullaby Op.16 (1977-8) [7.07]
Océan de terre Op.10 (1972-3, rev.1976) [12.25]
Lisa Saffer (soprano), Lucy Shelton (soprano), Peter Serkin (piano)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center/Oliver Knussen
Recorded in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, State University of New York at Purchase, New York, February, April and May, 1992
EMI British Composers 7243 5 75296 2 [75.47]

This excellent and very generous collection was recorded in the early nineties, when Knussen held the Elise L. Stoeger Composer’s Chair of the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center. In his concise but typically informative introduction to the works, which is reprinted in the booklet, he avoids in-depth analysis (probably wisely) in favour of a background and general overview of each piece. In many cases, the performers here are the dedicatees, and with Knussen in charge of the project, including being producer, the whole disc has an unmistakable air of authority.

Possibly the most familiar work here will be the Whitman Settings, which featured (in their slightly later orchestral guise) on the excellent 1996 DG disc of O.K.’s music. The soloist in both versions is the superb Lucy Shelton, who more than makes up for the lack of texts by giving us crystal clear diction and enunciation. She is partnered by another Knussen regular, Peter Serkin, and a formidable partnership they make. As the composer tells us, these characteristically powerful but unusually short poems "muse on things in space or sky, and all four songs grow out of the idea heard in the very first bar". The titles give clues; When I first heard the learn’d astronomer; A noiseless, patient spider; The Dalliance of the Eagles; The voice of the Rain. The wide-ranging and sonorous, almost romantic, piano accompaniment matches the typically visionary words from a poet who has a long history of inspiring English composers. Lines such as "I am the poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain, Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea" are treated to lavish textures – one can see why the composer felt the need to orchestrate, but the intimacy here has its own unique power.

Shelton also features on Océan de terre, which was composed in the winter of 1972-3, and is a setting of a French surrealist poem by Apollinaire. Lack of texts this time makes appreciation that much harder; the harmonies are quite dense and dissonant, with the tension between two twelve-note chord blocks (based on the interval of a fourth) creating layers of sound over which the voice floats. The effect is ethereal and disturbing, and it would be nice to know what is being expressed.

Peter Serkin also features again, once in Sonya’s Lullaby, a short piano piece that grew out of sleepless nights created by Knussen’s four-month-old daughter, and the Variations, a short but highly charged piece dating from 1989. Knussen admits to the influence of Stravinsky, Copland and Webern in this piece, particularly in the integration of extreme contrasts and the expressive approach to very limited raw material – the theme is itself a variation on its first six notes. The virtuosity is thrilling, with Serkin’s technique stretched but well able to cope with the severe demands of the piece.

The Rilke settings are tiny, terse pieces that are aphoristic and again recall Webern, particularly in the way character and texture are defined with extreme concision – silence is as important as music. The marvellously whimsical Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh is not a conventional text setting, though onomatopoeic devices are employed. It is rather, as Knussen tells us "a sequence of faded snapshots and reflections, by an unwilling grown-up, on things remembered from the book, and on what those things meant to him as a child … I allowed the music to take itself where it wanted to go". Both works are entertaining, and superbly realised by Lisa Saffer.

The Songs without Voices is a collection of short, self-contained compositions for flute, cor anglais, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. Three of them are, literally, songs without voice – that is, a complete poem ‘set’ syllable by syllable for instruments in the course of a movement. The other is a more private lyrical impulse – a cor anglais melody written upon hearing of the death of Andrzej Panufnik, and sub-titled Elegiac Arabesques. The performance is, needless to say, ideal in every respect.

So, all in all, an unmissable collection of short, easily digestible but important items by one of the U.K.’s foremost musical voices. It’s possible the disc has been issued to coincide with O.K.’s fiftieth birthday, and, if so, is indeed something to celebrate. Recording quality is in the demonstration bracket, and this has to be counted as another highly desirable addition to the important British Composers series.

Tony Haywood

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