KertÈsz was unwell, so 15-year-old Oliver Knussen conducted it himself. Two weeks later, Daniel Barenboim conducted the New York premiere
What an illustrious start to any career ! Yet, in a gesture of artistic maturity, Knussen soon disowned his first big success. Still in his teens, he left London and his many connections, and went to the United States to start afresh. America was the making of Oliver Knussen, who is now one of the most important composers, conductors and all-round mentors of British music. This recording, released by independent British music specialists NMC Records, commemorates Knussen’s early years at Tanglewood, where he would later become Head of Contemporary Music. It’s the first in a planned restrospective of Knussen’s career.
Knussen’s Symphony no 2 (1970) is thus his first major work, written at the age of 18. It’s a surprisingly adventurous work, given his age, but already the germs of Knussen’s style are present. This is a song symphony, inspired by poems by Sylvia Plath and Georg Trakl, with oblique but unsettling images of unpeaceful dreams. Knussen even combines the two poets in the first movement, further blurring boundaries. In the second movement, the soprano ((Elaine Barry), sings long, arching lines, and the orchestra is “drone-like”, as Knussen has said himself. Rather than building density, Knussen lightens texture, pairs oif instruments dancing briefly, then go quiet, leaving two flutes alone in a final, whimsical cadenza. Does Knussen’s Songs For Sue(2006) have its origins in his first “real” symphony, completed when he first went to America?
Knussen’s sojourn in the United States also resulted in his Symphony No 3 (1973-79). Knussen took his cue from Shakespeare’s Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing “mad songs” in Hamlet. The symphony is abstract, but Knussen has referred to its “cinematic” nature and “the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or ‘blown up’ at any point.” Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. Michael Tilson-Thomas, the dedicatee, conducts on this recording, made in 1981. Knussen’s Third Symphony is rarely heard live so when Knussen himself conducts it at the BBC Prom 56 on 25th August 2012, it should be a major occasion. Already, I’m contemplating how Knussen will conduct it then, with the BBC SO.
From this same period, Ophelia Dances and Trumpets arise like offshoots from the Third Symphony. In Trumpets, the soprano stretches like a trumpet call, three clarinets in attendance. Ophelia Dances reiterates the concept of fragmented dance-like motifs in confluence. Coursing (1979), isn’t connected to the symphony but its surging flow relates to the image of Ophelia, dead and no longer singing, borne along the river. It was written to honour Elliott Carter’s 70th birthday. Carter is now 103, and Knussen turns 60 this year.
For more information on this recording, please visit the NMC website.
image_description=Oliver Knussen: Symphonien Nr.2 & 3
product_title=Oliver Knussen: Symphony No 2 and No 3, Ophelia Dances, Trumpets, Coursing for chamber orchestra, Op. 17, Cantata for oboe & string trio, Op. 15.
product_by=Elaine Barry, Linda Hurst, sopranos. The Nash Ensemble, The Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas. The London Sinfonietta, Conductor: Oliver Knussen.
product_id=NMC D175 [CD]