Something of a change for the ubiquitous Rite of Spring at the Proms this year, as rather than act as a visiting orchestra showpiece the piece found itself cast closer to home, and given a composer’s eye view.
Oliver Knussen‘s interpretation of the score followed his past successes in shedding light on Stravinsky’s compositional process rather than simply achieving brass orchestral fireworks.
In this he came close to the approach of Pierre Boulez, but went one step further in conducting the quietest Rite the Proms can have witnessed for some time. This was achieved in the exquisite attention to detail of the Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls and the ticking Ritual Action of the Ancestors, both building compelling tension for when the orchestra was fully unleashed.
Conducted with a refreshing lack of fuss and little surface emotion, Knussen led a performance characterised by clarity of ensemble and dynamics. Horns, brass and the sizeable woodwind section were especially impressive, the strings a touch overpowered but rhythmically supple, and the five percussionists heroically kept their time and shape.
Knussen conducted the little known 1943 revision made by Stravinsky, and he praised the ‘hard clarity’ of the newer version in the programme note, a point taken on board as the orchestra stormed through the final Sacrificial Dance.
The first performance of the Rite of Spring is well documented for its riotous outcome, but a similar fate was to befall the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces when offered at the Proms back in 1912.
Even now their effect is startling, and if not quite causing the hisses of Henry Wood‘s opening concert there were restless shufflings amongst the audience in the central Chord-colours, where Knussen successfully cast Schoenberg’s hazy spell.
The Five Pieces present a challenge every bit as stern as the Rite, though their challenge lies in successfully uniting the disparate threads in all the available registers of the orchestra. This Knussen achieved, from tuba to piccolo, bringing forward the briefest of phrases without compromising the overall effect.
Knussen’s own Violin Concerto received a fine performance, with soloist Leila Josefowicz giving a technically commanding reading. The work captures the essence of its composer’s style, concise in structure but emotionally concentrated, expressive despite its economy. The structural divides are marked by a wiry high ‘E’ on the violin, conveyed with striking purity by Josefowicz, while the orchestral accompaniment added moments of brief beauty and tension.
Henze’s Sebastian im Traum was less convincing given this intimidating company, but almost certainly requires further listening to make more of an impact with its nocturnal murmurings and textures. The high register oboe theme was well crafted by David Powell, while the coda began around a particularly hollow knocking of the deeper percussion, answered by pensive violas.
Once again Knussen secured a keenly felt performance, notable for its clarity, and held the score aloft at the end. When he did the same with the Stravinsky, however, the cheer was tellingly loud and long.