In Prom 26, Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Reinbert de Leeuw and Brahms. Knussen was a teenager when he first met de Leeuw. They have much in common, both specialists in contemporary music, extraordinarily good interpreters of other composers' work, to the extent that they themselves have had to put writing on the backburner. Both have also headed the Aldeburgh Festival. But as we know, when Knussen writes, he writes so well that he creates remarkable work. So news of Reinbert de Leeuw's biggest work in many years was eagerly anticipated.
Reinbert De Leeuw Der nächtliche Wanderer is based on a poem by Friedrich Holderlin It's very different to the poet's earlier, elegaic visions of idealized Classical Antiquity, but heroic nonetheless in its intensity and depth. It's worth quoting in its entirety since like most of his poetry the meaning and syntax are so intense that they are almost impossible to translate.
Hu! der Kauz! wie er heult,
Wie sein Furchtgeschrei krächt.
Erwürgen - ha! du hungerst nach erwürgtem Aas,
Du naher Würger, komme, komme.
Sieh! er lauscht, schnaubend Tod -
Ringsum schnarchet der Hauf,
Des Mordes Hauf, er hörts, er hörts, im Traume hört' ers,
Ich irre, Würger, schlafe, schlafe.
( Huuu, howls an owl, whose terrifying screams, strangle and squeeze the life from Ajax, the the hero in Greek mythology. And nearby circles the Shrike, another nocturnal bird of prey. Notice the syntax, umlaut u's one after another, as if the speaker is choking. Yet "Komme, Komme" Maybe the poet sunconsciously wills it? See! He (Death) laughs, sneering, encircling the snorting heap (ie the body). As the heap is murdered it hears, it hears, in a dream hears. I go mad. Shrike, sleep, sleep. It's not, I think a poem about insomnia or a grimmer Der Wanderer an den Mond, but a gruesome mix of death and insanity. Again, notice the syntax and relentless repetitions. )
De Leeuw Der nächtliche Wanderer begins with the sound of a dog, barking in the distance : a warning. From a background of low, rumbling sounds, a viola emerges, tentatively probing its way. As the chords stretch, they're illuminated by flashes of sparkling light. A sense of circular movement yet also of stillness. Muffled drums beat and the large string section creates an elliptical swirl of sound. Small quiet sounds, deliberately elusive, contrasting with the broad sweep in the strings and rising, angular figures in the brass, themselves interrupted by clicking sounds. In this dream, how the sounds are made is less material than what we might think they are. Tension mounts. Bells call out, tolling with hollow hardness.
Whirling, rushing figures, then silence broken by dull thuds. This quiet interlude is surprisingly beautiful, suggesting not just the moon but the infinite darkness beyond. This time, the viola emerges playing a kind of melody which I found poetic and very moving. This time the melody continues, its tessitura rising higher and higher til it suddenly breaks over, hovering in a sense beyond our ears. Then, from the quietness, flashes emerge and oscillating figures. Do we hear distant trumpets playing in cacophony? The BBC SO play with deftly defined detail so the different directions in the score aren't muffled into mush. Frantic tumult: a panic attack in music, yet deftly, carefully orchestrated and performed.
Cymbals crash: are we in the the throes of a death struggle ? Distorted moans from the strings. More thoughtful contemplation, from which a disembodied man's voice emerges, whispering the text of the poem The orchestra surges to life, sprightly dancing figures and animated swirls of sound, woodblocks and searching chords. This time, though, the mood is more confident. When the bells ring this time they sound present and bright, and the woodwinds play a passage that reminded me of the viola melody., especially when joined by the strings evoking the passage with rising tessitura. Perhaps De Leeuw's wanderer has woken, wiser?
De Leeuw's Der nächtliche Wanderer reminds me of Der Leiermann in Winterreise,which heralds change, but one which is elusively equivocal. Der nächtliche Wanderer is intruguing because it's so evocative and repays thoughtful listening. .
Preceding De Leeuw, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op.83 with Peter Serkin, another Knussen buddy. Another big beast, and nicely done. When Knussen first met de Leeuw, Knussen looked like the young Debussy. Now he resembles Brahms. But this Prom will remain in the memory for De Leeuw and his Der nächtliche Wanderer.