Monday, 6 August 2012

Oliver Knussen : Symphony no 3 and 2, NMC

Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen's First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct. Kertész was unwell, so 15-year-old Oliver Knussen conducted it himself. Two weeks later, Daniel Barenboim conducted the New York premiere. In an equally unprecedented gesture of maturity, young Knussen then disowned his first great success.

Knussen's Symphony no 2 (1970) is thus his first major work, written at the age of 18. It's a surprisingly adventurous work, given his age, but already the germs of Knussen's style are present. This is a song symphony, inspired by poems by Sylvia Plath and Georg Trakl, with oblique but unsettling images of unpeaceful dreams. Knussen even combines the two poets in the first movement, further blurring boundaries. In the second movement, the soprano ((Elaine Barry), sings long, arching lines, and the orchestra is "drone-like", as Knussen has said himself. Rather than building density, Knussen lightens texture, pairs oif instruments dancing briefly, then go quiet, leaving two flutes alone in a final, whimsical cadenza. Does Knussen's Songs For Sue have its originals in his first "real" symphony, completed when he first went to America?

Gianandrea Noseda conducted this symphony in Prom 22, BBC Proms 2012, with Gillian Keith as soloist, but I prefer this recording, conducted by Knussen himself in 1983.

Knussen's sojourn in the United States also resulted in his Symphony No 3 (1973-79). Knussen took his cue from Shakespeare's Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing "mad songs" in Hamlet.  The symphony is abstract, but 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. Michael Tilson-Thomas, the dedicatee, conducts on this recording, made in 1981. Knussen's Third Symphony is rarely heard live so when Knussen himself conducts it at the BBC Prom 56 on 25th August 2012, it should be a major occasion. Already, I'm contemplating how Knussen will conduct it with the BBC SO. 

From this same period, Ophelia Dances and Trumpets arise like offshoots from the Third Symphony. In Trumpets, the soprano stretches like a trumpet call, three clarinets in attendance. Ophelia Dances reiterates the concept of fragmented dance-like motifs in confluence. Coursing (1979), isn't connected to the symphony but its surging flow relates to the image of Ophelia, dead and no longer singing, borne along the river. It was written foir Elliot Carter's 70th birthday. Carter is now 103, and Knussen ewill turn 60 this year. NMC Records, the independent specialist in British new music, has released this recording as the first in a retrospective of Knussen's music, ideal for those wanting to discover more about Oliver Knussen as composer. Get the CD HERE.

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