Knussen: Autumnal / Booth, Josefowicz, Wood, Watkins, Wigglesworth
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KNUSSEN Choral 1. Autumnal 2. Whitman Settings 3. Secret Psalm 4. Prayer Bell Sketch. 5 Violin Concerto 6. Requiem–Songs for Sue 7. Ophelia’s Last Dance 8 • 1,6,7 Oliver Knussen, cond; 2,4 Alexandra Wood (vn); 2,8 Huw Watkins (pn); 3 Claire Booth (sop); 3,5 Ryan Wigglesworth (pn); 6 Leila Josefowicz (vn); 1,6 BBC SO; 7 Birmingham Contemporary Music Group • NMC D178 (77:54 Text and Translation) Live: 6 London 8/17/2007
The titles give a clue— Autumnal, Requiem, Ophelia’s Last Dance —but it should be understood that these are all memorials, mostly to lost colleagues, friends, and loved ones. The Sue of the Requiem subtitle is Oliver Knussen’s wife who died suddenly in 2003. Choral memorializes Roberto Gerhard, Autumnal : Benjamin Britten, Secret Psalm : Michael Vyner, and Prayer Bell Sketch : Toru Takemitsu. The Violin Concerto reflects the composer’s emotional turmoil regarding the events of 9/11, and we all know how Ophelia’s Last Dance ended. So, the pervasive tone is, well, autumnal, if not funereal, and occasionally anguished. This is not to suggest that the music is in any way dull or even heavy; reflective, perhaps, is a better word. Knussen is a composer of great imagination and superb craft, and a master of color and nuance, so there is not a moment of music here that is less than thoroughly engaging.
Unlike the previous NMC Knussen release ( Fanfare 36:1), this is not a reissue, though the violin concerto recording was released by Deutsche Grammophon on a two-CD release of music from the 2007 BBC Proms ( Fanfare 31:6), now out of print. Peter Serkin recorded Prayer Bell Sketch for a 2000 program on the Koch label ( Fanfare 23:6). It is something of a cult classic, and still available. So is the brilliant Lucy Shelton/Peter Serkin 1992 reading of the Whitman Settings (Virgin), and Kirill Gerstein’s 2010 performance of Ophelia’s Last Dance on Myrios. Still I count this as good news, that, as Knussen acknowledges in his notes, a new generation of performers has come to the earlier works and even better news that alternate readings are being made available. Ryan Wigglesworth matches Peter Serkin’s subtlety and finds impressionistic nuances of his own in Prayer Wheel Sketch , while Huw Watkins’s quicker and more impulsive reading of Ophelia’s Last Dance creates a portrait both fey and more disturbed. Claire Booth is in every way Shelton’s equal in accuracy and agility, while less icy of voice and construal, and Wigglesworth provides imaginative support.
Then there are first recordings of four additional works: the Ligeti-colored Choral; Autumnal , the homage to Britten’s Nocturne and Serenade with its subtle references to the older master’s characteristic chords and cadences; Secret Psalm , which uses as a starting-point the honoree’s favorite violin warhorse; and the almost painfully revealing Requiem–Songs for Sue , which Knussen has described as an act of public mourning. The last, a song cycle setting poems by Dickenson, Antonio Machado, Auden, and Rilke, is sung with quiet intensity by Claire Booth, for whose voice it was conceived. Knussen, a master conductor of his own and other’s works, conducts all of the orchestral pieces. The ensembles are superlative. Alexandra Wood, leader of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, performs Autumnal and Secret Psalm with warmth and intensity, and is matched by partner Huw Watkins in the former. Sound is excellent throughout; the original BBC recording of the concerto seems a bit fuller in this incarnation, to its benefit. Notes by the composer are authoritative and informative.
One little—very little—niggle: I admire Grant Wood’s Americana paintings as much as anyone, but what does this cover have to do with the music of Oliver Knussen? And the farmer is plowing; it’s Spring Turning , not autumn. Sorry. I’m done… This is in every important way a wonderful release and highly recommended.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Catalog Number: NMC D178
Label: NMC Recordings
Composer: Oliver Knussen
Conductor: Oliver Knussen
Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Performer: Alexandra Wood, Claire Booth, Huw Watkins, Leila Josefowicz, Oliver Knussen, Ryan Wigglesworth