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Enlightened and pleasing programme

16.07.2019


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Oliver Knussen - who died following last year’s Aldeburgh Festival - was so closely associated with the Festival and, in particular, Britten, whom 50 years ago this year invited him to have his music performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. Therefore, this enlightened and pleasing programme by the Knussen Chamber Orchestra under their chief conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, offered a worthy and fitting tribute to this well-loved composer.


Although the KCO made its début at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on Friday 7th June in the pit for Thomas Larcher’s chamber opera, The Hunting Gun, this performance actually marked the orchestra’s first concert on stage of Snape Maltings Concert Hall.


Assembled from some of the UK’s leading orchestral players and the finest emerging instrumentalists, the KCO performed a well-balanced and entertaining programme which included a trio of miniatures by Mr Knussen including his last composition, O Hototogisu! - a musical journey of the soul from this world to the next - premièred at last year’s Aldeburgh Festival. 


The ‘Hototogisu’ happens to be a bird (the Lesser Cuckoo, in fact) and is often invoked in Japanese Haiku, a short form of Japanese poetry. Its spirit is represented by the flute and Knussen, in the same vein as Britten in the Nocturne, pairs the voice with that of a flute - a perfect match. Flautist, Karen Jones, found herself on brilliant form moving discreetly about the stage capturing the true essence of a bird’s shrill call fluttering from the mountain-top as a harbinger of summer and then appearing as a voice from the land of the dead. 


Knussen, in fact, was fascinated by all things Japanese and this short eight-minute work bears this out. Some of the percussion instruments used were Japanese, too, comprising a Hyoshigi (large claves), a mokusho (a very high woodblock), a rin (a standing bell) and a small Japanese drum. They punctuated Knussen’s score in a striking and effortless way.


But it was an earlier work by Mr Knussen that opened the programme with Gong (from Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rainer Maria Rilke) written in 1988 ‘quickly and completely by intuition’ for the 70th birthday celebrations of Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. A three-minute piece, scored for solo voice, it was meticulously sung in a moving and thoughtful performance by soprano Claire Booth who collaborated with Knussen on so many of his works. Her clear, articulated and wide-ranging voice was heard to absolutely mesmerising effect throughout a hushed auditorium.


The third work by Knussen featured Scriabin Settings in which Knussen took five of the Russian composer’s late-piano miniatures whom he commented upon as being ‘very charming, exotic and perfumed’. A quiet, subdued and melancholic piece, members of the KCO captured the essence of Mr Knussen’s writing in a clear and concise way.


One of his closest friends, Mr Knussen invited Toru Takemitsu to the Aldeburgh Festival in 1984 and 1993, three years before his death. Therefore, I found it immensely touching that the programme included a performance of Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind (written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1991) and inspired by poetry of Emily Dickinson.


Scored for a standard classical-based orchestra with the addition of a harp, a piano doubling on celeste and tuned percussion instruments which became a ghostly clock marking the passing of the hours, it summed up the reverence and poignancy of the evening of a concert staged in memory of Oliver Knussen.


Igor Stravinsky was another composer championed by Mr Knussen and in this respect the performance of Stravinsky’s Septet (composed in 1953 for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and piano) added weight to the overall programme. Lying in the shadow of the Octet, programming the Septet proved a shrewd and clever move and it was neatly performed, especially by the strings in the ‘gigue’ (the last movement) with the players meeting the composer’s demanding writing in an effortless way.


The penultimate work in this well-planned programme (Britten’s Nocturne) was blissfully, clearly and emotionally sung by the celebrated tenor, Mark Padmore, who simply excelled in his performance. It’s his repertoire and it perfectly showed. The fourth and last of Britten’s four orchestral song-cycles - the others being Our Hunting Fathers (1936), Les Illuminations (1939) and Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1943) - it featured a collection of eight songs which portrayed so vividly the spirit and essence of Britten’s sensitive writing of a work that he dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer. Mahler’s works, particularly the orchestral song-cycles, were such a strong influence on Britten’s own music.


Schubert had the last word, though, with a performance of the fifth symphony which showed off the prowess and aptitude of members of the Knussen Chamber Orchestra, admirably led by Clio Gould, safely in the capable hands of Ryan Wigglesworth, to extremely good effect.


Knussen Chamber Orchestra 
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)
Claire Booth (soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Knussen: Gong (from Four Late Poems and an Epigram of Rainer Maria Rilke)
Stravinsky: Septet
Knussen: Scriabin Settings 
Takemitsu: How Slow the Wind 
Knussen: O Hototogisu! 
Britten: Nocturne 
Schubert: Symphony No.5


(Snape Maltings Concert Hall) Suffolk, England, 11th June 2019

Tony Cooper

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