This month the BBC's Total Immersion series celebrated the 60th birthday of British composer Oliver Knussen. A sensitively devised programme given at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Sunday featured five works composed between the 1970s and the 1990s. The collection comprised Knussen's Autumnal for violin and piano (1976–77), written at the time of Benjamin Britten's death, his Variations, Op. 24 for solo piano (1989), Secret Psalm for solo violin (1990, rev. 2003), Prayer Bell Sketch (1997) inspired by Tōru Takemitsu, and the aqueous Ophelia's Last Dance for solo piano (2009–10).
We were fortunate in having a trio of acclaimed contemporary music interpreters as our performers: Ryan Wigglesworth (piano), Alexandra Wood (violin) and Huw Watkins (piano).
Compared to the compositional productivity of many of his contemporaries, Knussen's output is relatively slight. This can be ascribed in part to his activities as a conductor, through which he has championed a variety of lesser-known musical works. Yet it is precisely this prolific existence that serves to guide his music-making. Rather than succumb to a preoccupation with originality, Knussen's compositional art is immersed in an eclectic array of sources ranging from Claude Debussy to Elliott Carter. In the midst of this mosaic of influences, Knussen's works are characterised by a peculiar freshness. Small in scale, these exquisitely constructed musical jewels eloquently sidestep conventional quests for artistic maturity. The pieces brought to us in this programme were part of the same imaginative landscape that yielded the capricious fantasy operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. They come from a composer with a playful mindset who, as audiences were told earlier that day in the Barbican Cinema, owns an impressive collection of mechanical toys.
Alexandra Wood and Huw Watkins opened the concert with their performance of Knussen's Autumnal, Op. 14. After the news of Britten's death in 1976, Knussen was quoted as saying "I remember... thinking about trying to integrate some of the highly individual chord-voicings and cadences that I love most in Britten's later music into my own vocabulary, but in such a way that one would simply perceive them as objects, abstracted from their original expressive content". His decision to title the two movements of Autumnal as "Nocturne" and "Serenade" is a specific salute to two of Britten's orchestral song cycles. Wood's management of the opening melodic fragments and their sonorous prolongation was conducted with aplomb: the bell-like clarity of her harmonics was also particularly impressive. Accompanied by mandolin-inspired strummings across the violin strings, Watkins navigated intricate musical cells at the piano during the "Serenade". The two musicians established a dialogue that shone with ludic vivacity until the notes vanished into thin air.
Ryan Wigglesworth deserves special mention in this programme for his outstanding performances of Knussen's Variations and the Prayer Bell Sketch. Both these of these solo piano works were brought alive by Wigglesworth's energy and artistic finesse, evidently refined through his work as a composer. Despite technical slips in the intractable Variations, he charmed the audience with his spry pianistic touch and dramatisation of the score. The Prayer Bell Sketch, formed by Knussen in an attempt to take up an abandoned project of Takemitsu's, was again effectively animated. The accumulation of resonances in this work recalls Takemitsu's Tree Line (1988) and Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, and such connections were brought out in Wigglesworth's interpretation. He crowned his performance with an endearing gesture, holding Knussen's score out to the audience in place of the conventional performer's bow.
Sandwiched between the Variations and Prayer Bell Sketch was the Secret Psalm for solo violin. In light of Wigglesworth's efforts, Wood's delivery of this work appeared overly deterministic. Knussen's hesitant elegiac structure would perhaps have benefited from a memorized performance to ensure that its distinctly introspective qualities were not just ironed out. In turn, Huw Watkins' pristine rendition of the Chopinesque Ophelia's Last Dance did not capitalise on the dissolving nature of the music: a detail that would certainly have added facets to Knussen's subject matter.
The formality of the occasion was somewhat diminished by the shambolic condition of the Guildhall's Music Hall. Littered with chairs, stands and other music paraphernalia, the performance space was apparently engaged in a bid for the next Turner Prize, except that instead of Tracey Emin's Bed we were left with The Chair – an object wholly without function in this context – that was brazenly dumped centre-stage. Despite this carelessness, the performers succeeded in inviting us into Knussen's spellbinding creative sphere; a sphere in which even the most sophisticated of musical products can appear as bright and colourful playthings.
St Giles, CripplegateFore Street Barbican Cripplegate
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DA
Oliver Knussen © Clive Barda