|Oliver Knussen : photo Clive Barda|
Oliver Knussen and Aldeburgh : indelibly connected. Knussen's presence hovers forever over Aldeburgh.. Like Britten, Knussen started young,. At the age of ten, he was introduced to Britten who was impressed by the lad's interest in adventurous music. Knussen was instrumental in carrying on the mission of Britten and Pears, under the mantle of the Britten Pears Foundation which provides support for composers and performers. This is Britten's true legacy : bringing together creative minds in a supportive environment, stimulating the development of generations of musicians. The Aldeburgh Music Festival is just a two-week celebration of work that goes on all year round. Knussen dedicated so much to helping others that his own career as composer was sidelined, but his legacy lives on, too, in the way the Britten Pears Foundation has shaped modern music. This is the heritage that's being honoured by the creation of the Knussen Chamber Orchestra (professionals working together with students ), who gave the first of two concerts at this year’s festival in Knussen's memory., conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth (one of many Britten Pears Foundation beneficiaries).
No single concert could ever do justice to Knussen and the depoth of his interests, but this was a good introduction. From Knussen's Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rainer Maria Rilke, (1988) the song Gong, where the unaccompanied voice flows like a solo instrument, at once exotic and elusive. The word "gong" rings each letter resonating, the way the sound of a gong continues to reesonate after the initial stroke has ended. A perfect memorial to Knussen and his altruistic ideals. Claire Booth sang. Like Jane Manning, who commissioned the piece, Booth worked closely with Knussen and understands his idiom. It flowed seamlessly into Stravinsky's Septet (1953) for seven instruments - three blown instruments (clarinet, bassoon and horn)and three plucked (violin, viola and cello), a piano moderating and supporting the groups. This connected to Knussen's Scriabin Settings (1978) which adapt Scriabin's late miniatures for piano for small ensemble, extending the colours without sacrificing transparency : very "Knussen" too, one composer listening to another with respect. Then Toru Takemitsu's How Slow the Wind (1991). Knussen and Takemitsu were very close, both sharing an appreciation for precisely formed miniatures - almost haiku - where light shines through delicate washes of colour. This is music based on nuance : selflessness achieved through sensitivity. Takemitsu's influence in Knussen inspired Knussen's O Hototogisu (2017) which employs a fairly large ensemble (23 players plus two soloists) yet has the feel of something intimately observed. In this case, the sound of the hototogisu, a Japanese cuckoo, symbol of spring but also of the next world. Poignant, given it was Knussen's last complete work before his sudden death last summer. The flute (Karen Jones) sings alone, unaccompanied except for restrained percussive effects, as if it were being heard, unseen, in natural surroundings. Other atmospheric sounds create an ambiance from which the soprano (Claire Booth, the dedicatee) sings, her voice chirping and trilling, like a bird. More "atmospheric" percussion - single notes, low rumbling lines - entice the flute - hitherto facing away from the ensemble - to interact with the voice, which develops long, keening lines in imitation of the flute. Profoundly beautiful.
This concert ended with Schubert Symphony no 5, Schubert being one of Britten's favourite composers - but for me the highlight was Britten's Nocturne ( Op 60, 1958) with soloist Mark Padmore, which inspired Knussen as a child. What would a child know of the mysteries of the night, especially of the subconcious and metaphysical ? But Knussen must have been an unusually perceptive child, responding instinctively to musical undercurrents which many adults still can't comprehend. This is a difficult piece and highly unorthodox. The scope is ambitious - eight very varied settings by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare - put together with structural cohesion that's panoramic in scale though scored for only seven instruments and soloist. The ensemble is unobtrusive, commenting on and extending the vocal line. The voice part itself seems to reflect the sounds of an instrument, twisting and shape shifting, like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling. The effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds, absolutely of the essence in texts that address strange, otherworldy concepts where things might not be what they seem to be.
"On a poet's lips I slept/Dreaming like a love-adept" is just the starting point as we enter this phantasmographic journey "Nor heed nor see, what things they be;But from these create he can Forms more real than living man, Nurseling of immortality!" - the word "nurseling" twisting and turning, very different froim the cadence of normal speech. In the second song, we encounter the Kraken, a monster that sleeps in the ocean depths in "ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" until summoned by the bassoon, which lumbers and coils like the mythical beast, aroused. As he rises to the surface, wind instruments evoke "bubbles". But the kraken dissolves as he reaches light,. the last word "Die" is clipped, strangled mid-note. The third song describes a young boy, alone beguiled by the night. The lines of the text curve, round and round : almost circular breathing for voice. The effect is claustrophobic.
"Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting" a pause betweeen each"ting" so the ensemble murmurs around it. Dogs howl, but the nightingale sings "twit, twit, twit" and the nibbling mouse goes "peep, peep, peep, peep". Britten plays with this text to enhance the individuality of each creature's expressiveness. The “mew, mew, mew” of the cats is plausibly feline, yet also surreal. Indeed, it reflects the bizarre setting of the word "be-au-u-teous boy" in the previous song, suggesting that the doomed boy may be prey, to be hunted down. Here this had me thinking of the young Knussen, and of the composer grown up, but still fascinated by "Where the Wild Things Are".
The fifth, sixth and seventh songs form an internal group. Ominous drumrolls introduce "But that night, when on my bed I lay", where the voice projects, like a trumpet, as if the protagonist were trying to be brave. The ensemble rises around him,with hard staccato chords. The final cry "Weep no more!" may be cried in vain. In the setting of Wilfred Owen, "She sleeps on soft last breaths" the drumstrokes are muffled like a heartbeat, a clarinet calling in the background. The pace is steady,like breathing, but the voice and its wind counterpart curve long lines. Peace is an illusion. When the voice falls silent, the ensemble continues, murmuring without words, "The Kind Ghosts" of Britten's title. The Shakespeare sonnet "What is more gentle than a wind in summer" dances gaily, but what is Britten's intent? When the sleeper wakes, will the nightmare end ? The ensemble surges, menacingly, the voice ending on a very high note, held as silence falls. Britten's Nocturne is such a strange beast that interpretation is tricky. Peter Pears's instrument wasn't beautiful but he intuited Britten's possible meaning. The English tenor voice, which Britten understood so well, is unique in that it can express otherwise inexpressible undercurrents that lie hidden beneath the words and sounds. When Ian Bostridge had this in his regular repertoire, he could bring out the depths that make an idiomatic performance so rewarding. Padmore has done it many times, too, but he's sometimes too genteel.