Classical and Opera Reviews

BBC SO / Knussen @ Barbican Hall, London

18 March 2016


Oliver Knussen(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Oliver Knussen
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

It is always a treat to watch and listen to Oliver Knussen conduct, particularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has a close relationship and an obviously good rapport. His control over the music, attention to detail and sense of insight make him one of the country’s best interpreters of the modern and contemporary repertoire.

This concert saw the UK premieres of two works, both loosely linked by the theme of dreams. The late Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape was composed in 2012, and the composer (who died last year) claimed that the piece came to him in a dream. This may account for its brevity – a mere ten minutes or so of music framed in three movements – and its slightly unfocused feel. Schuller did not delineate the contents of the dream, so listeners were left with only an impression of feverish activity and bursts of energy, punctuated by brash gestures on strings and brass.

Debussy’s Nocturnes is a more familiar work, with a clearer narrative across its three movements: impressions of clouds, a festive procession and the sirens of Greek mythology. This was a performance of great clarity and balance. As a prolific orchestral composer himself, Knussen was able to peel back the layering of Debussy’s gossamer score, highlighting the horn, harp and string sonorities in particular. But there was something a little too careful and dry about his reading. The second movement ‘Fêtes ‘, for example, lacked the joy and verve that it surely requires.

Following the interval, George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song was also given its UK premiere. Scored for solo countertenor (Iestyn Davies), a chamber-sized female chorus (members of the BBC Singers) and small orchestra, it sets verses by two early medieval poets from Granada – Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol – and poems by Gabriel Garcia Lorca, who was killed near the city in 1936. Benjamin’s music deftly reflected the haunting beauty of the verses, and the wistful but muscular countertenor lines found their ideal exponent in Davies. Somehow, though, the five sections felt overly reserved, with limited contrasts between the different numbers. The work probably requires repeated listening to uncover its more complex subtleties

It was left to Stravinsky and his Symphony in Three Movements to ratchet up the rhythmic bite and thematic diversity that was lacking earlier in the concert. Knussen seemed to thrive in the opening Allegro’s percussive punch and the second movement’s jaunty irony. Again, his direction was precise and detailed, but this time the mood lifted, and he elicited some excellent playing from the BBC SO, particularly from the team of percussionists and Elizabeth Burley on piano.

 


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