Friday 13 March 2009

Philharmonia/Wigglesworth - Knussen, 12 March 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Océan de terre, op.10
Variations, op.24
Requiem – Songs for Sue, op.33

This was the latest of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s free ‘Music of Today’ series, each instalment of which precedes another, more ‘mainstream’, orchestral concert. There was an enlightening pre-concert discussion between Julian Anderson and the featured composer, Oliver Knussen. For the most part, Anderson simply let Knussen speak about the works and his compositional method. I had the impression that he could have continued for a good deal longer and, moreover, that there would have been few signs of diminishing returns. But the discussion had already overrun, so the concert had to begin.

Océan de terre, a setting of Apollinaire, is an early Knussen work, composed in 1972-3. Its sonorities are beguiling, almost as ‘French’-sounding as the surrealist verse. The chamber ensemble, made up of members of the Philharmonia, was on excellent form. It was clear that Ryan Wigglesworth, whom I heard earlier this year conduct Knussen with the Britten Sinfonia, was an equally excellent guide to the players’ endeavours. Balances sounded well-nigh perfect and real direction was imparted to the work’s harmonic progress. Claire Booth once again proved herself to be one of the most interesting and able young sopranos in British musical life. It is difficult to imagine a keener response to the musical and verbal text.

Wigglesworth turned pianist for the 1989 solo Variations, written for Peter Serkin, as a stipulated six-minute commission. Knussen explained earlier that Serkin had commissioned a number of six-minute works to perform together in recital. The composer also revealed that he had attempted to write a work that would play to Serkin’s strengths and passions. The work would seem most successful in that respect. Contrapuntal energy and imagination testify to the pianist’s – and presumably also the composer’s – love of Bach. There is virtuosity aplenty, though always directed to eminently musical ends. And the daunting example of Webern’s op.27 proves not so daunting after all, an inspiration to a lighter – in the best sense – successor. Wigglesworth certainly had the measure of the different expressive and pianistic characters of different variations and different groups thereof. Structure and thematic development were admirably clear throughout.

Finally, we heard Knussen’s 2005-6 memorial to his wife: Requiem – Songs for Sue. Booth was once again the able soloist, although I did wonder whether there might have been greater intensity in her delivery. It would doubtless, though, be better to err on the side of understatement than to sound mawkish. The beauty of the verse from four different poets – Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, Auden, and finally, a fragment chosen by Alexander Goehr from Rilke – was conveyed as much by the delectable fifteen-player ensemble as by the vocal line, and as much in the transformative element of the composer’s setting as in fidelity to fixed ‘meaning’. Once again, Knussen’s ear for sonority was heard to excellent effect. I was particularly struck by the neo-Mozartian passages for two clarinets and bass clarinet but there were countless combinations and permutations I might have cited.