Knussen Orchestral & Vocal Works

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Knussen Orchestral & Vocal Works

  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Trumpets
  • Ophelia Dances: Book 1
  • Coursing
  • Cantata
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Trumpets
  • Ophelia Dances: Book 1
  • Coursing
  • Cantata

Oliver Knussen is now generally accepted as the leading British composer in the class of the early 1950s. This post-Maxwell Davies/Birtwistle generation often seems more relaxed and good humoured than its predecessor—more neo-Romantic than post-Expressionist—but that is not to say that Knussen's music is easy-going or lacking in substance. Through its links with (among others) Debussy, Ravel and Lutoslawski, it may well give more emphasis to colour and fantasy than the intensely argumentative music of composers more directly in debt to Schoenberg or Webern. Yet any suspicion that there is less to a Knussen piece than meets the ear is unlikely to survive scrutiny of the score or acquaintance with the composer's scrupulous working methods, and his works improve with repeated hearings because intellect and imagination are both liberally involved.
To be so concerned as Knussen is with ''overall (and audible) harmonic coherence'' is to make the task of writing worthwhile modern music a notably difficult one. There are many problems to be solved on the road to that ideal coherence, as the earliest and longest piece on this record, the Symphony No. 2, reveals. This has the widest range of stylistic reference and the least convincingly integrated harmonic character of the works included: in particular, its climactic A major triad seems more a question than an answer. The symphony is nevertheless an absorbing and remarkably well-realized work for a 19-year-old, its sensitivity to words and capacity for the memorably expansive melodic phrase portents of much that is best in the later compositions.
The three smaller pieces all build in different ways on the symphony's exploration of the need to provide a strong framework for elaborate yet well-defined melodic gestures. In the Trakl setting of Trumpets verbal and musical structures are tellingly animated by verbal and musical imagery, so that what might easily have been hackneyed and predictable is fresh and vivid. The Cantata for oboe quartet may not entirely avoid (or seek to avoid) associations with that limp pastoral rhapsody inherent in the medium, but it grows into something characteristically intricate and well shaped. In Coursing it is the initially florid yet fierce melodic cascade which seizes the attention, so forcefully that the final dying-down flirts with the prospect of anticlimax. The logic is evident, but one still wants more music.
These four works are given excellent performances by singers and players too numerous to name, and their impact is enhanced by fine recordings which preserve the generous aural perspectives of St John's, Smith Square, where they were recorded. The LP is not generously filled, however—a pity that Knussen's other Trakl work, Rosary Songs, could not have been included—so collectors who do not already have the record which includes the Symphony No. 3 and Ophelia Dances should undoubtedly go for the cassette which adds these works to the four discussed above. The result is a splendidly comprehensive collection of 'Knussen in the 1970s', and although the sound for the two works recorded in Watford Town Hall is a little drier than for those recorded at St John's in London, this is no criticism when the quality of the performances themselves is so fine.'

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