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CD Review

Oliver Knussen

  • Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22 (1988)
  • The Way to Castle Yonder, Op. 21a (1988-90)
  • Two Organa, Op. 27 (1994)
  • Horn Concerto, Op. 28 (1994)
  • Music for a Puppet Court, Op. 11 (1983)
  • Whitman Settings, Op. 25a (1991/92)
  • … upon one note, fantazia after Purcell (1995)
Barry Tuckwell, horn
Lucy Shelton, soprano
London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen
Deutsche Grammophon 449572-2
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Summary for the busy executive: The power in the little.

I first heard of Oliver Knussen in 1964-65, when the composer had not quite or just reached 13, through a Time article on the première of a symphony. Unusually, I even remember exactly where I was when I read the article. In my late teens, I'd done absolutely zip except go to school. I remember thinking that I had better get cracking, time's wingéd chariot, and so on. Over thirty years later, I'm still resolving to pull up my socks and start building my monument. Knussen in the meantime has continued to compose.

My mind will probably always link Knussen with childhood, especially given much of his subject matter: two operas on stories by Maurice Sendak, "hums" and songs from Winnie the Pooh. Furthermore, Knussen strikes me as a kind of toymaker. In Jean Renoir's La Règle du Jeu, the marvelous Marcel Dalio plays an aristocrat in love with clockwork toys, far more than with his wife. And yet Dalio's character eventually reveals itself as the most humane of the lot. Knussen admits that he prefers art, spatial and temporal, minutely worked, and this certainly seems true of the pieces recorded here. Knussen doesn't storm heaven, at least he hasn't lately, preferring the delights and satisfactions of exquisite craft. Curiously, like his friend and inspiration, Maurice Sendak, and like his models Stravinsky and Ravel, the brilliance of the fine detail lead us first to awe and then to meditation on the mind that produces it. Knussen's music reminds me a lot of Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges – perhaps one of the most profound artistic explorations of childhood – not so much because of idiom, but because the composers seem to work the same psychic space. There is in both a selfless working toward a purifying, absolute beauty. They can achieve it through a partial identification with the child, but not completely. As parents know, children aren't especially innocent or selfless, and yet, as Robert Coles has shown over and over, there is beautiful clarity in the way some children come to moral or spiritual grace. I would suspect it's because their focus is laser-narrow, like a diamond cutter's or a watchmaker's.

Flourish with Fireworks comes from a commission by Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Knussen, Stravinsky's Fireworks lurked in the back of his mind – not so much the actual music, but the idea of writing a short, well-wrought showpiece. The generating motive of the piece is la eS sOl mi ti ti, or London Symphony MTT – fairly intractable – but Knussen comes up with one scintillating variation after another, although I don't think it will ever become the popular success he hoped to write. The rhythm, for one thing, is one of those "on the brink of auditory chaos" things, and you never really hear the motive as a memorable theme. It's more a matter of certain intervals emphasized, most particularly the augmented fourth. Still, Knussen does it better than just about anyone. The orchestration at times pays tribute to Stravinsky, particularly in the precisely-imagined texture. In fact, you see how intellectually lazy most other composers doing this thing are.

The Way to Castle Yonder is a suite of three short orchestral interludes from Knussen's second Sendak opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Knussen describes it as "a theatrical requiem for [Sendak's] dog, Jennie…. Castle Yonder is the animals' theatrical heaven of Sendak's imagination." The first interlude opens in foreboding, but Knussen doesn't resort to the modern equivalent of the diminished-seventh chord. A lot happens all at once, on several simultaneous rhythmic planes, most notably the startlingly realistic sound of a trotting horse pulling a milk-wagon. You get to pick out one strand and then another, and the texture changes kaleidoscopically. But Knussen knows when to be simple as well. The second interlude, "Kleine Trauermusik" (little mourning music), generates extended lines from a minor third. The finale begins with a bound and ends in the sound of bells, somewhat like the "Laideronnette" episode in Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, with the steady, shimmering pulse of the gamelan.

Knussen defines organum as melismatic organum – that is, "plainchant as the foundation for rapid, ecstatic, dance-like melismata." In the Two Organa, we again find two different rhythmic planes: one slow, one fast. In the first organum, the connections to 12th-century organa lie fairly close to the surface. Knussen's brand of rhythmic simultaneity lies closer to Stravinsky's Pétrouchka than to Ives. In the second, the composer has buried the connections much deeper and rhythmically comes closer to Ives (Knussen has conducted a good deal of American music). I admit I haven't gotten the handle on slightly more than 3 ½ minutes of music, but I'll keep at it.

Knussen wrote the single-movement horn concerto for Barry Tuckwell. The cover on the CD booklet shows a Sendak illustration of a small hooded figure on a moonlit night blowing into a hunting horn, and that seems to capture the emotional ambiance of the piece. The piece reminds me a lot of Britten's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. There's the feeling of music hanging in the air and echoing off far hills in the forests of the night, as well as the undercurrent of intense energy, at times like a symphony of crickets, at others like Oberon's hunting party. The work sings poetically and evocatively in a contemporary way. Tuckwell and the London Sinfonietta make beautiful music together.

As you may know, a canon is a many-voiced composition built from one line of music. In many cases, as in a round like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," you know when the next voice enters. However, in certain canons, the next voice can enter in any one of a number of places at any one of a number of pitches. A puzzle or riddle canon is notated in such a way that this is obscure. Bach wrote a number of these. The 16th- and 17th-century composer Valentini devised a canon which has 2,000 solutions. Music for a Puppet Court originated as an arrangement of two puzzle canons by Tudor composer John Lloyd, to which Knussen added free variations of his own. This isn't time travel, like Stravinsky's Pulcinella, but more the composer saying, "That reminds me of something interesting," like Peter Maxwell Davies' Taverner Variations. The solution of the canons turn out to involve successive entries in different rhythms, something we've already seen that attracts Knussen. The headwork, though considerable, takes a back seat to the incredible clarity and delicacy of Knussen's orchestration. Why a "puppet court?" I suspect Knussen got the title from the stately regularity of Lloyd's rhythm, and the title fits the beauty of the instruments as well. Knussen's paraphrases indeed oppose that regular rhythm, providing a fine contrast to the older movements.

Knussen joins the long list of British composers attracted to the poetry of the American Walt Whitman. Knussen writes: "These characteristically powerful but unusually short poems of Walt Whitman attracted me because they deal with grand natural phenomena on small canvases." Again, we see the idea of the power in the little. I can't call any of the settings – "When I heard the learn'd astronomer," "A noiseless patient spider," "The Dalliance of Eagles," and "The Voice of the Rain" – a success, but this could very well be due to soprano Lucy Shelton. Shelton, apparently an American born in California, labors under the delusion that the words don't matter, and so what we get is one long vowel movement, à la the old-time comedian Frank Fontaine. I couldn't understand a bloody thing she sang, even with the words in front of me. Presumably, the words mattered enough to Knussen to move him to specific settings, and any fine points of expression get lost.

"… upon one note pays mini-homage to Purcell. Written for mixed quintet (clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano), it's a fantasia on a fantasia, with the Purcell original (Fantazia upon one note), particularly the cadences, peeking through here and there. One note sounds throughout the original (the fifth of the scale) and may also in Knussen's piece, but with the freer dissonance of Knussen's language, such things matter less. Nevertheless, it's a lovely three minutes, occasionally Mozartean in the perfect distribution of interesting material among the players.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz