Oliver Knussen is one of the most consistently interesting composer/conductors today. He does not join the ranks of the jet setting conductor variety and his repertoire has been varied and carefully chosen: from being an impassioned advocate of late Stravinsky (and late Stravinsky needs all the advocates he can get) to excellent surveys of Peter Lieberson, Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton,Peter Serkin, David Del Tredici, Marcus Lindberg, Poul Ruders, Julian Anderson, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Knussen has been a staunchly committed champion of Elliott Carter’s music and has premiered a staggering amount of new music (well on his way to rivaling Stokowski’s record of premieres), which have included Copland’s Grohg and Henze’s Undine. Among the most valuable of Knussen’s recordings is a quintessential collection of Stokowski’s Mussorgsky’s arrangements, which, perhaps in an actual first, surpassed the original.
In his conducting oeuvre, Knussen is a justifiable critical favorite. However, it is as a composer that Knussen has received even greater accolades. He is a composer’s composer who, by no means, succumbs to the overtly academic agenda of much that is in post-Webern music; an agenda which has practically sounded the death knoll for artmusic.
Late in his life, Arnold Schoenberg was informed that younger composers were advancing his twelve-tone method, to which Schoenberg replied with a prophetic question: “Are they making music with it?” Many would argue that the answer is a resounding: “No.” The problem has been that modern composers have looked to the content and surface of Webern, rather than the context of Schoenberg (and forgetting that Webern wrote in miniature).There is little doubt that Schoenberg was of more piercing substance. Naturally, it is always easier to mimic style.
Although Knussen is not a serialist, he utilizes the modern idiom with wit, joy, atmosphere, profundity and accessibility (yes; accessible dissonance). Essentially, Knussen is a postmodernist who absorbs a kaleidoscopic palette of influences (namely; Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky) and filters them through his own personality-driven sensibilities. Knussen, a child prodigy, is, by a considerable margin, the best British composer of the last hundred years, and, with Esa Pekka Salonen, a referenced example of postmodern strength. Additionally, Knussen’s music has that contextual depth of music making that Schoenberg, rightly, deemed as essential. In short, Knussen’s music does not resign itself to the prevailing emotional bankruptcy that has, tragically, been the norm (rather than the exception) for at least half a century. Even more consoling is Knussen’s brand of spiritual expression. Far from going the route of hyper pretentious minimalism, Knussen’s sense of focused communication remains earthbound.
This collection begins with the forty-year-old composition, the meditative lament:”Choral.” The idyllic title piece is from the 1970s and scored for violin (Alexandra Wood) and piano (Huw Watkins). Clare Booth (soprano) and Ryan Wigglesworth (piano) are ideal soloists for The “Whitman Settings”, as is the returning Wood and Wiggelsworth for the miniatures: “Secret Psalm” and “Prayer Bell Sketch.” The 2002 violin concerto is gratifyingly lithe and incandescent with august playing by Leila Josefowicz.The elegiac, refreshingly subtle Requiem: “Songs for Sue” was composed as a dedication to his wife, who passed away in 2003. Knussen’s text derives from the couple’s favorite, shared poets. Again, Booth’s contribution is near ideal. The Scriabinesque “Ophelia Dances” (again, with Watkins as soloist) are, aptly alluring. The BBC Symphony is, as expected, exemplary.
If this recording has a fault, it might be in its seemingly arbitrary assemblage. Still, it’s minuscule compared to the gratification one gleans from this indispensable collection of new music.