In days gone by, if you went to see a Mahler Symphony, you wouldn't feel you’d had the full experience unless Gustav himself was waving the baton. Nowadays the privilege of watching a composer conduct his own work is a somewhat rarer one, though fortunately not yet a completely extinct practice, and watching Knussen’s Symphony No. 3 with the composer himself at the helm was certainly a novel experience. The piece was written between 1973 and 1979, begun when Knussen was just twenty one, premièred in part the following year and not finished until six years later, when it was debuted at the Proms. The symphony was based on the fate of Hamlet's Ophelia, her growing madness imitated by swirls of sound folding into themselves, reaching violent explosive peaks of confusion and tumult throughout the first half, her untimely death by drowning mirrored in the agonisingly contemplative second half. Being both creator and conductor certainly enabled Knussen to draw the very best from the orchestra, the tightly coiled bursts of woodwind coming across as truly quixotic, shrill and jagged like the madness of the young girl.
It seemed as if Knussen had an advantage in conducting his own work, especially since the commitment to bringing the story to life for the preceding Goehr piece, Metamorphosis/Dance Op. 36, was less convincing. Although the performance was musically sound, and towards the end the orchestra captured the thicker, more tribal textures with vibrancy, the fragmented opening seemed interpretatively hesitant at times, as if Circe’s casting a magical spell and the connection between the musical ideas did not quite hang together cohesively in the minds of the performers. However, as the piece continued and the story of Ulysses and Circe unfolded further, this initial hesitancy dissolved into a solid and enjoyable performance.
The vast majority of the second half was dedicated to Debussy's The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The music is an interesting construction, the first of the five ‘mansions’ (acts) in the Neo-Renaissance modal style typical of Debussy in his more adventurous harmonic moods, the latter mansions being grand and brilliant in places, simple and mystical in others. The orchestra’s phrasing was impeccable throughout, the unique twists in harmony handled with care and imagination. However, the soloists were not as assured in their performances. The solo soprano, Claire Booth, lacked vocal support in her upper register in the second mansion; her tone quality was much richer and more secure nearer the end of the piece. The two mezzo-soprano soloists were similarly lacking in conviction at times, but generally their voices blended well together. The accompanying choir, by contrast, was outstandingly assured in its performance, the purity of the female voices in the first mansion ringing effulgently through the Royal Albert Hall. As a whole, the piece came across very well, and despite any technical short-comings on a couple of the solo passages, the musical had a clear sense of style and portrayed the story expressively.
The most interesting and remarkable item on the programme proved to be one only five minutes in length: Helen Grime’s world première in honour of Knussen’s sixtieth birthday, a short nocturne entitled Night Songs. The performance was incredibly engaging, not only because of the sensitive rendition and the hints of influence from the earlier-played composers interspersed with Grime’s own fresh and original ideas, but because in an unusual turn of events, the piece was performed twice back to back following a technical error in the first performance (Knussen’s glasses slipped, and after an amusing address to the audience, he vowed to give the piece a second airing in order to give it the première it deserved). It was intriguing to hear the piece twice in succession, not only because it gave the audience a chance to become more familiar with the music, but also because it gave the orchestra a chance to relax. As a consequence the second performance was even more thrilling than the first, and gives me reason to wonder if this might be an interesting concept to test-run in further programmes, or even take to greater extremes. If you sat and listened to the same piece of music five times in succession in concert, how many different nuances would you notice that had never been there before? In how many different ways would the music come to life? It certainly seems like an interesting programming opportunity to explore in future in order to allow the audience to get deeper inside the music, and, despite the fact that it was in no way planned, was for me the highlight of the concert.
ballet, Knussen’s Third Symphony prefaces Helen
Grime’s 60th-birthday tribute to him. Debussy’s
incidental music for a mystery play appears complete
for the first time in Proms history.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Oliver Knussen © Malcolm Crowthers