Sunday, 26 August 2012

Strange Twins Knussen Debussy Goehr Prom 56

Oliver Knussen is an institution. He lights up every Prom season but this year was special, as he was conducting his own Symphony No 3. This piece was the true breakthrough of his career. Hearing Knussen revisit the piece, more than thirty years after he completed it, was a revelation. This performance sounded so fresh and bright, it was like hearing the piece anew. The dreamy lyricism of Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of 1981 gives way to a tighter, more incisive reading where details are pinpointed in sharp relief.

In Shakespeare, Ophelia loses her mind, singing "mad songs" and dancing wild dances. She is a paradigm of a creative artist, who uses art to articulate emotion. Knussen's Third Symphony is abstract, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its "cinematic" nature and "the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or 'blown up' at any point." Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge - especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit oif celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler's Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don't sound the least bit similar, and Knussen is not a Mahler conductor (and the celeste appears elswhere) but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. Knussen's symphony "dances" with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.

Alexander Goehr's Metamorphosis Dance  dates from 1974, whch links it to the period when Knussen began working on the Third Symphony. For Goehr, the archetypical dancer is Circe, who in the Odyssey, turns men into animals and back. Goehr's variations twist and turn gracefully: this Circe's art lies in transformation, without malice. With Knussen, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave  a luminously beautiful reading, which must have warmed the composer's heart. Performances as sympathetic as this justify Goehr's reputation, and Knussen's admiration for him.

Knussen is also a great believer in Helen Grime, premiering many of her works, at Aldeburgh and at the Proms.  Her Night Songs fitted this Proms programme nicely, though might not have been quite so effective in another setting. Huge orchestra, but lopsided, all the weight on the right side of the platform,  the strings on the left struggling. Or perhaps that was the intention? The piece lasts just five minutes. One wonders if Grime might plan a second piece for symmetric balance? In typical Knussen practice, the piece was repeated. "I hope it was all right" said Knussen "My glasses fell off, so I'll conduct it again to make sure". (NB Knussen often repeats short pieces, it's his thing You can tell who goes to Ollie concerts and who doesn't, by seeing who got the joke and who didn't).

Oliver Knussen's programmes are always deviously well chosen. If nothing else, Knussen and Debussy look like brothers! Debussy's Le martyre de Sainte Sébastien (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien) (1911) was originally written with a major part for the dancer Ida Rubenstein, and poetic narration (text by Gabriele d'Annunzio no less!). It's a strange exotic work, a non-religious mystery play. Sebastien is a court favourite who's condemned to be shot through with arrows but is redeemed by divine intervention and becomes one of the stranger saints in the liturgy. Yukio Mishima's veneration of St Sebastien in Confessions of a Mask definitely won't appeal to the pious!

The music is striking, so you can hear why it appeals to Knussen's sense of theatre and lurid colours. Knussen's approach is very Knussen, which is fair enough. Claire Booth, a Knussen regular, and a favourite of mine, too, sang the soprano solos, though she wasn't idiomatic. It was also hard to follow the two choirs (New London Chamber Choir and BBC National Chorus of Wales). Many in the audience were French, but needed their programme booklets for the text.  By far the finest singing came from  Polly May and Clare McCaldin  as Mark and Marcellin, commenting on events from up high above the orchestra.
You might also like Proms Pelléas et Mélisande,  and the review of Knussen's Third Symphony on NMC in Opera Today.
And also, a review of Knussen's double bill, Higgelty Piggelty Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are from Aldeburgh, which is coming soon to the Barbican.
(Goehr photo: Etan Tal. Top picture of Knussen: Roger Thomas)

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