MUSIC REVIEW Michael White BBCSO / Knussen Prom
ST DOMINICʼS PRIORY, LONDON
The TV cameras were out for Prom 30 – Oliver Knussen conducting the BBC Symphony – and I’d imagine they were under instructions to shoot in close-focus because the hall was depressingly undersold: more than half empty by my reckoning.
Of course, a half-empty Albert Hall would be a full house for most concert venues; but clearly something hadn’t worked here. Maybe it was that Knussen, a fine musician but uncharismatic on the podium, isn’t box-office. Maybe the 20 minutes of new music scared people off. Maybe the programme as a whole didn’t fit together invitingly – and it certainly was an awkward mix, including things you wouldn’t expect someone like Knussen to shine in. Which he didn’t.
Stravinsky’s ballet Jeux de Cartes, with its coolly analytical neo-classicism, was in secure hands. But Respighi’s Fountains of Rome was cooler, less colourful, less splashy than it needs to be as an item of loveable, high-quality kitsch. It got the quality but not the kitsch – only half the deal.
The orchestral version of Balakirev’s exotic fantasy Islamey (better known as a fiendishly difficult piano solo) was never going to bring out Knussen’s strengths. He’s a conductor who does clear-headed precision, not grand gestures and saturated atmosphere – which raises the question why he’d been engaged to do this music. Answers on a postcard.
More broadly, he was there to give the British premiere of a new piece by his own hand, commissioned for the Cleveland Orchestra in America. But that was quietly shelved because it wasn’t finished (despite the Cleveland waiting for it since 2004) and replaced with Knussen’s 15-year-old Horn Concerto – a stunningly well-written (if brief) score, worth re-hearing.
Knussen may have problems finishing commissions, but when they do emerge their mastery of orchestral form and texture is unequivocal; and this concerto is a short, sleek beauty – over-mindful of its place in tradition, perhaps, with too much reference back to the iconic horn music of Britten, Mahler, Strauss and others, but achieved with grace and elegance, and masterfully played by the BBCSO and a young soloist, Martin Owen.
The most memorable thing on the programme, though, was a new piece called Virga by 28-year-old Scottish composer Helen Grime. A name much whispered these days, Grime has Knussen’s clear, technically coherent way with large orchestral forces; and this piece – whose formal ideas grew from an image of rainfall evaporating before it hits the ground – was one of the most impressive new scores I’ve heard at the Proms in ages: only five minutes long, but not a moment wasted or less than compelling.
New organ music being a niche market, the Annual Festival of New Organ Music run by Martin Stacey of St Dominic’s Priory, London, is a niche event that pulls fewer crowds than Oliver Knussen Proms. But it does have ambition. And this year, as well as recitals at Westminster Cathedral, Marylebone Parish Church, and lecture-demonstrations by the likes of Peter Dickinson (one of the quietly quirky personalities of British music whose half century of writing organ scores has just been marked with a commendable release on Naxos), it featured quantities of work from Canada to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.
It also opened with someone over from Russia: a young, pony-tailed virtuoso called Ilya Kudryavstev playing a mixed bag of repertoire, all new (or new-ish) though not always sounding so. Most of the music was nothing that would frighten horses – which I guess reflects the muted sense of adventure that obtains in organ lofts.
But there was a strong new score by John Casken, written as a test piece for the St Albans Organ Competition. And if Kudryavstev’s playing is representative of standards in Russia (not something I monitor) they must be high; the aristocratic elegance with which he drew clarity and focus from the grand dimensions of St Dominic’s Father Willis instrument was exemplary. A tour de force but tasteful: not a constant combination in the organ world, but welcome when you find it.