Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican

The shifting nightscapes
were evoked with characteristic precision and transparency by conductor
Oliver Knussen, but it was the very real, sometimes violent, physicality of
Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements which proved most exciting and

Gunter Schuller’s Dreamscape (2012) is a fantastical, and fun,
exploration of poly-rhythms and instrumental colour. The composer, who died
in June last year, professed to have received the whole work in a dream —
along with the instruction to ‘play musical jokes’ — and, upon waking, to
have been able to ‘write down, in both verbal and musical notation, all
kinds of shortcuts and abbreviations, a whole 10 minutes of vivid, precise
information’. These notations were then ‘fleshed out’ to exploit the
quadruple woodwind and brass, two harps, piano, celeste, diverse percussion
and large string forces made available to Schuller by the Tanglewood Music
Center Orchestra which commissioned the work.

The Scherzo umoristico e curioso exploded into being like a
fire-cracker and proceeded to throw musical scraps and fragments into a
riotous mix: razor-edged brass assaults, violent string stabbings, warbling
horns, jazz-inflected trumpet fanfares, and a battery of percussive blows
and chimes (the six percussionists juggled, among a huge array,
sleigh bells, tom-toms, slapstick, four Chinese gongs, bass and drum,
marimba, woodblocks, ratchet, triangle, cymbals, bell tree, cowbell, and
even a lion’s roar) formed a lunatic nightscape of moon, monsters and
magic. In Ivesian fashion, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Yankee Doodle Dandy
made an appearance, along with a yell of ‘No!’ from the clarinettist
towards the close, before the maelstrom was silenced by an irreverent blast
from the contra-bassoon.

After such bawdy frenzy, the Nocturne probed the mysteries of
darkness. The atmospheric writing for strings was punctuated by huge
outbursts for muted brass which surged then immediately subsided. The
contemplative mood continued in Birth-Evolution-Culmination, a
compressed study of musical development which grew from unsettling
primordial rumblings in the lower strings, by way of emergent melodic
pronouncements from the solo cello (Susan Monks), escalating babblings from
the xylophone and savage string peroration, to build towards fierce brass
flourishes, before the material was startlingly truncated, without
‘resolution’. Knussen relished the score’s technicolour exuberance and
etched the diverse material with clarity.

George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song is similarly kaleidoscopic,
if more eclectic, being scored for two oboes, four horns, two harps,
strings and a percussion ensemble of glockenspiel, vibraphones, gongs and
cymbals. The work was written for countertenor Iestyn Davies who, with a
potent blend of fluidity and intensity, gave an impressive performance of
Benjamin’s settings of two Hebrew poets from the mid-11th
century, Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (sung in English versions
by Peter Cole), in dialogue with texts by Gabriel Garcia Lorca (in the
original Spanish) sung by the female voices of the BBC Singers.

The countertenor’s flamboyant, silky melismatic utterances in ‘The Pen’
were underscored by disturbingly impulsive undercurrents created by
intricate string textures and pungent horns; the latter occasionally
obscured the voice, though such overpowering was rare in the work as a
whole. ‘The Multiple Troubles of Man’ required Davies to call upon the dark
colours of his chest voice, while tentative motions from the lower strings
and a plaintive oboe solo conveyed unease. The women’s choir made a
dramatic contribution to the closing passages of ‘Gazing Through the
Night’, intensifying the concentrated dissonances and anticipating the
pained harmonies of the climactic fourth movement, ‘From Gacela Del
Amor Maravilloso
’, in which the choral voices formed a striking wall
of sound.

‘The Gazelle’ was notable for the contrast and dialectic created between
Davies’s astonishing pure, almost ethereal, vocal tone and the dark
revolutions of the lower strings. A fine horn solo and the whispered choral
gestures added further to the sense of mystery, as Benjamin juxtaposed two
visions of dawn, past and present forming an intriguing palimpsest.

Benjamin’s melodies are strong, and the smooth, sinuous lines perfectly
suited Davies who was simultaneously mellifluous and penetrating. Knussen
shaped the interactions between solo voice, choir and orchestra with
insight, bringing forth moments of brightness and colour, then allowing the
motifs to sink back gently into the shifting textures.

Knussen was a model of economy and clarity in Debussy’s
Nocturnes, but the conductor focused more on the individual
crystalline delicacies of the score than on its overall emotive impact.
This approach was apparent from the first bars of Nuages, when the
slender, elegant motifs were beautifully defined but any semblance of
expansion was instantly quelled. The result was that we could enjoy some
fine solos and colloquies from the flute, cello and, especially, cor
anglais (Alison Teale), and the clarinet’s melody sang enchantingly about
the gentlest of orchestral murmurings. But, the streams of warmth which
define the harmonic progressions sometimes lacked strength and

FÍtes did conjure more vitality and there was an almost
childlike excitement as the array of chattering instrumental outbursts
paraded past in a dancing chain, enthralling with their panache and
exoticism. With the entry of the horns and side drum, the march built to a
thrilling and flamboyant climax, before the parade slipped, with one last
self-assured flourish from the brass, out of town. SirËnes lilted
mysteriously, as the voices of the female chorus (seated either side of the
Hall) mingled with the cor anglais’s mystical air. Knussen undoubtedly drew
forth the poetry in the decorative impressions but sometimes at the expense
of the powerful undertones beneath the paint’s surface.

Dreams made their way into some of Stravinsky’s compositions too —
The Soldier’s Tale supposedly includes a theme that the composer
heard in a dream of a young gypsy sitting by the roadside, playing a fiddle
to her child with long sweeps of the bow, while the sacrificial dance of
The Rite of Spring was also said to have been inspired by
night-time visions. But, there is nothing dream-like about the composer’s
Symphony in Three Movements with its fusion of baroque forms and
techniques, Russian folk idioms, jazz and self-parody, and with the final
work of the programme the BBCSO seemed revitalised, playing with
thrillingly animation.

The percussive playing of strings and piano (Elizabeth Burley) during
the motoring episodes of the Allegro was exhilarating, acquiring a
ferocity that was biting but never unrestrained. Knussen showed acute
appreciation of the way the ‘concerto’ episodes articulate the architecture
of the work, and in the development section he used the chamber-like
scoring to give the independent instrumental statements stature, while
maintaining the overall fluency of the contrapuntal textures.

The influence of baroque forms was even more clearly defined in the
Andante where the ethereal obbligato harp and trilling woodwind
offered a gentle respite after the onslaught of the opening movement,
without any loss of harmonic tension. This underlying tension sprang forth
once more in the lively syncopations of the Con moto; as varied
instrumental voices interjected in vigorous debate, the wealth of material
threatened to burst through the boundaries of the fugal forms which
contained them, but Knussen retained a taut grip on the explosive, layered
blocks as the movement thrust forward to its triumphant conclusion.

Extra-musical stimuli played their part in the Symphony in Three
Movements — not dreamy imaginings but the modernity of the
twentieth-century city: the mechanical pounding for strings and piano in
the opening movement is said to have been Stravinsky’s musical
representation of flashing neon lights experienced during a car drive.
Moreover, in 1963, in Dialogues and a Diary, the composer noted
the influence of cinema in the first movement (a documentary on
scorched-earth tactics in China) and in the Con moto (newsreel
footage of goose-stepping soldiers, declaring that the conclusion of the
finale was associated with ‘the rise of the Allies after the overturning of
the German war machine’. Knussen and the BBCSO punched home the
contemporaneousness of the Symphony with vitality and verve.

At the start of the concert, Knussen paid tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell
Davies, who died on Monday at the age of 81, with a performance of Maxwell
Davies’s own homage to Stravinsky — a short instrumental canon in which the
spare, acerbic melodies wind and entangle themselves before arriving at a
position of rest. Followed by a minute’s silence, it was a moving

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Gunther Schuller — Dreamscape (UK premiere), Debussy —
Nocturnes, George Benjamin — Dream of the Song (UK
premiere), Stravinsky — Symphony in Three Movements.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Oliver Knussen (conductor), BBC Symphony
Orchestra and BBC Singers. Barbican Hall, London. 18th March

image_description=Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt]