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Oliver Knussen: Choral, Op. 8 – Autumnal, Op. 14 – Whitman Settings, Op. 25 – Secret Psalm – Prayer Bell Sketch, Op. 29 – Violin Concerto, Op. 30 – Requiem-Songs for Sue, Op. 33 – Ophelia's Last Dance, Op. 34
Alexandra Wood (violin), Huw Watkins (piano), Claire Booth (soprano), Ryan Wigglesworth (piano), Leila Josefowicz (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen (conductor)
Recorded at: CBSO Centre (March 2011 and April 2012), BBC Radio 3 (March 2012) & Royal Albert Hall (August 2007) – 77’54
NMC D178 – Booklet in English

This is a welcome disc of mostly recent compositions from Oliver Knussen, one of the most talented composers and conductors working today. A fastidious craftsman, Knussen creates musical gems, imbuing them with emotional content that has ranged from whimsy (his masterful opera of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are) to bittersweet (the Requiem on the present disc).

Choral acts as a prelude to the disc as a whole, a brooding example of Knussen's 1970s style, a Mahlerian cortége through which flashes of light shine. The winds and percussion of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play with gorgeous blend on the low end and flickering agility on top. The program proceeds chronologically and, in the two-movement Autumnal, we find Knussen waxing more Britten-esque, a fact eschewed by the movement titles ("Nocturne" and "Serenade") as well as the piquant but never disorienting harmonic language and imaginative scoring from a limited instrumental palette (here, violin and piano duo). The Whitman Settings, previously recorded in both piano and orchestral versions with Lucy Shelton, find a different perspective from Claire Booth's more flexible voice, laden with an infectious, rapid vibrato. This is a major 20th-century song cycle. Knussen's melodies are longer and more immediate and his piano writing is leaner in texture but more exuberant in virtuosity than in the earlier Variations. The never-ending string of technical hurdles that confront the performers are negotiated with ease by Booth and pianist Ryan Wigglesworth. Two solo works, Secret Psalm for violin and Prayer Bell Sketch for piano, serve as a welcome interlude, with the Takemitsu-inspired piano work especially striking.

Two substantial additions to Knussen's catalogue, his Violin Concerto and Requiem - Songs for Sue, last less than 30 minutes combined, but both easily hold their own against other repertoire in their respective genres. Bell sounds predominate, as well as spectral-inspired, resonant harmonies. In the Violin Concerto, Leila Josefowicz (always reliable in modern repertoire) is dazzling, playing with impressive assurance and attractive tone in a piece that hovers mostly in the instrument's stratosphere. The true find is the Requiem, a work that in its brief 12 minute run touches on virtually every emotion while maintaining a coherent, reverential feel. The chosen texts - Dickinson, Machado, Auden and Rilke - are quickly traversed, but never feel rushed. Time takes on different meaning in Knussen's musical world. There are plenty of memorable melodic figures and inspired orchestration, and Knussen makes his allusions to various styles - Berg in the Rilke, Copland in the Dickinson - merge into a convincing, unified whole. Claire Booth again sings with accuracy and musicality, and the composer's baton stirs up a constant stream of evocative timbres from the Birmingham new music group.

The program ends with Ophelia's Last Dance a work, like the Requiem, composed in response to the death of the composer's wife. There is a dance-like lilt running through the piece and pianist Huw Watkins expertly manages the layered textures. The almost jazzy last few minutes of the piece, after a crushing climax, bring the entire program to a satisfying conclusion. In addition to ensembles that this composer has had long working relationships with, it is great to see a new group of young soloists dedicating themselves to Knussen's vividly imagined music. As a whole or piece by piece, this disc is engaging throughout. The touching booklet tribute from Colin Matthews and program notes by Knussen himself (as succinct yet satisfying as the compositions themselves) are welcome bonuses.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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