Knussen Symphonies Nos. 2&3; Trumpets; Ophelia Dances
The recordings on the first of these CDs, reissued to mark Oliver Knussen’s 60th birthday, go back to the early 1980s, when he was working on the pair of Maurice Sendak operas (Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!) that occupied him from 1979 to 1985. The Second Symphony, begun in 1970, is an especially vivid demonstration of how Knussen can complement a distinctive intensity, suited to the nightmarish imagery of Georg Trakl’s verse, with the cooler yet no less deeply felt expressiveness appropriate to poems by Silvia Plath. It is also illuminating to have Knussen’s later Trakl setting, Trumpets, included here and to complement the Second Symphony with the powerfully opulent and evocative Third. These were always definitive performances and it is good to have them available once more – together with Knussen’s brief yet knotty tribute to Elliott Carter at 70, Coursing – in expert remasterings.
The second disc, of new recordings, begins with the richly atmospheric Choral for orchestra which Knussen wrote at the same time as the Second Symphony. Most of the remainder, including the longest piece, the 16-minute Violin Concerto (2001-02), is more recent and shows the composer further refining his responses to earlier 20th-century models as diverse as Berg, Debussy, Stravinsky and Britten. Like the Second Symphony, Requiem: Songs for Sue (2005-06) juxtaposes English with other languages – Spanish as well as German – and conveys an edgy blend of lamentation and celebration that is the more affecting for its directness and economy. Claire Booth brilliantly manages the music’s kaleidoscopic shifts of rhetorical focus and is equally successful in the earlier group of Whitman settings, given here in the version with piano accompaniment.
The economical immediacy of one of the most striking works on the first disc, Ophelia Dances, is complemented on the second by Ophelia’s Last Dance, which Knussen worked on as recently as 2010. This too has a valedictory quality offset by the kind of unobtrusive technical virtuosity in the music’s construction that subtly belies the understated ruefulness of its atmosphere. The new recordings are all of high quality and include the composer’s own notes.