Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 61: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen, Claire Booth – Knussen, Anderson and Webern @ Royal Albert Hall, London

29 August 2007

Brevity in music can be a good thing, and it was a quality to the fore in this highly enjoyable and stimulating late night prom.

Never one to show excess as a composer, Oliver Knussen brought another exquisitely shaded Second Viennese masterpiece to the hall, following on from Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in Prom 45.Webern’s own Five Orchestral Pieces are a model of compression.

Yet they lose nothing in intensity – quite the opposite in fact.In choosing to perform them twice Knussen generously gave his audience the chance to take in more of the music, and so concentrate on individual contributions as well as the whole. This music is perfectly suited to late night listening, and the Royal Albert Hall was as still as it had earlier been restless, digesting the calmness of the thirteen bar first piece, the shrill climax of the second and a carefully studied fifth.

In comparison, Julian Anderson’s Book of Hours might have felt like a Mahler symphony but this, too, was hardly profligate in its development of the musical material. Anderson’s star is on the rise at present, and this piece is one of his very best calling cards. Knussen, the work’s very first conductor, directed an intense performance that captured the dance elements of the piece and cleverly interspersed its electronic realisations, presided over by Jonathan Green.

The warm, sonorous chimes of Part I were striking, even more so when reappearing as if through a crackling LP recording to open Part 2. This is a cleverly wrought piece, but not for cleverness’ sake – more, this was a good example of how modern music has opened up again to accept outside influences without compromising, with folk and even dance music rhythms cropping up in the complex development.

Two of Knussen’s own works made up the remainder of the programme, both conducted with the customary modesty and lack of pretence we have come to associate with this figure.

The colourful Ophelia Dances were beautifully shaded and painted, with a florid cadenza from Clive Williamson‘s celesta leading to a spacious and moving coda.

Meanwhile the Requiem (Songs For Sue) received its debut Proms performance from its dedicatee, soprano Claire Booth. The commanding declamation of poet Emily Dickinson, “Is it true, dear Sue”, set the tone with an arresting start, further realised in Knussen’s acutely realised yet economical word settings.

The brief cycle, high in emotion, confirmed once again the composer’s ease with the vocal form, and the natural unforced style with which he writes. It’s been good to see Oliver Knussen take a prominent role in the festival this year, and those attending both his Proms will have been moved by his humble enthusiasm for the music he helps to perform.

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