Sunday, 18 March 2018

Ollie's back ! Knussen Busoni Brahms

Oliver Knussen, Jukka Harju, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen is back, and in excellent form, conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Helsinki in  a programme typical of Ollie's quirky flair. Ferrucio Busoni's Rondo Arlecchinesco (1915), and Nocturne Symphonique with Knussen's   Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (1994/5) and Brahms Symphony no 2   A typical Knussen programme, devised with wit and musical nous.  (Video stream available until September 2 2018 on:   )
Ferrucio Busoni does not fit any neat pigeonhole. Busoni believed that “music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny”, and that it was just in its infancy as an art form.  Busoni envisioned the opening out of horizons. Just as the world changes, culture cannot stand still, and music changes with it.   Although his own music isn't wildly radical, he paved the way ahead for others. His theories about music and culture may prove to be his legacy.  No less than Edgard Varėse called him “a figure out of the Renaissance”, who “crystallised my half formed ideas, stimulated my imagination, and determined, I believe, the future development of my music”.

Busoni and Knussen have much in common. Indeed, understanding Knussen's life-long interest in Busoni explains a lot about what makes Ollie tick.  Busoni's Rondo Arlecchinesco is based on his opera Arlecchino.  Arlecchino, or Harlequin, is one of the standard Commedia dell'arte figures, the archetype of traditional Italian theatre.  He's a servant, but not servile, so is depicted as a clown who subverts the pretensions of his masters.  Leporello before his time ! Busoni places Arlecchino centre stage, the four parts of the opera depicting different aspects of Arlecchino's persona.   Quicksilver figures introduce the Rondo, soon developing into fanfare, from which brooding, surging figures emerge.  Knussen brings out the cheeky inventiveness in these figures, so when the staccato march resumes, complete with militaristc horns, the figures seem to fly, irrepressibly away from the constraints of control freakery which militarism represents. The bassoons and lower brass blow raspberries at the horns : disorceder poking fun at order. A voice sings "Lalalalala!", Harlequin's defiant song of freedom. Though the brushes may beat on the drums, our anti-hero cannot be suppressed.  Significantly, Arlecchino was written just before the 1914-1918 war and premiered during the hostilities. Knussen's a Harlequin, too, in his own inimitable way. Who else could have written operas like Where the Wild Things are and Higgelty-Piggelty Pop !, which are by no means children's operas though they're based on Maurice Sendak.  Please read my analysis of these operas HERE (Faith in Food) and HERE.

The fluency with which Knussen conducted Busoni's Nocturne Symphonique demonstrated a mature understanding of the darker mysteries of Busoni's idiom.   Not for nothing that this preceded Knussen's own Horn Concerto, op 73, 1994/5, soloist Jukka Harju) which he has said "assumed more and more character of a Nachtmusik (in a Mahlerian sense)" as he worked on it.  Short bursts of sound pop up, bright and alert. The horn enters, long calls weaving and moving , the orchestra commenting in brief explosive outbursts.  Bright light winds and brass sparkle around the deeper timbre of the horn as the music enters a new and almost sinister phase, bassooons and contrabassoons rumbling menace.  The horn line rises, as if searching direction by reaching into the space around it.  Near-mayhem builds up around it, but the horn persists, despite ominous crashes of timpani. The horn continues reaching out, at first alone, then led on by muted horns and trumpets.  The horn calls, met by crashing cymbals - the clash of metal against metal - but the horn has the advantage since it breathes "alive" as it's being played by human breath.  Over the last 25 years, Knussen's Horn Concerto has been done so many times, it's almost standard repertoire, and for good reason.

 As a teenager, Knussen looked like Claude Debussy's secret twin. Now he's in his 60's, he resembles Johannes Brahms.  But that's not why he ended the Helsinki concert with Brahms Symphony no 2  .  Musically, it connects with Busoni's Nocturne Symphoniue and with Knussen's Horn Concerto and links them all to much more ancient sources that might lie in European folk traditions, where dense forests are metaphors for the psyche, and fairy tales a language for coping with mysterious forces.  "Aha !" I thought, "the spirit of Maurice Sendak!"  At moments I thought I could hear echoes of Brahms Lullaby, which is perfectly pertinent.  Knussen's Brahms is sometimes unorthodox, but this time he was conducting to the manner born, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra playing with emotional depth.  

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