Thursday’s Prom took place during a Tube strike, the pastoral cycle routes to the Albert Hall packed with a weighty peloton of Boris Bikes. It felt refreshing to step into the dark dome for the BBC Symphony Prom conducted by Oliver Knussen.
It’s a continuing wonder to me (I first met him forty years ago at Tanglewood) that Knussen has managed to be both a real composer and a real conductor (and not a ‘conducting composer’ of which I’m afraid there are a few, able to beat time to their own work and a few other favourites.) In fact, he seems to be able to do something which not even the other real conductors can’t, and that is, persuade the orchestra to play exactly on his wonderfully precise beat. Part of the strange Alice-in-Wonderland world of symphony orchestras is that often the musicians appear to play way behind whatever the maestro is doing, reinforcing the impression that everyone onstage is in a world of their own. But during this evening every one of Knussen’s gestures (which seem to be getting ever more economical in actual volume, almost Japanese in their courtly restraint) sent an electric charge through the large group of performers, irradiating the music.
With Knussen the intention is to be clear, to lay open the riches of the scores he loves and knows so well for all to see and hear. And this was certainly the case with Gunther Schuller’s Paul Klee Studies, an incredible score from 1959, an era when post-war modernism had on the whole begun to enter its own rear end. Of course Gunther knew that music backwards (appropriately enough) and the Studies contain delicious meetings of 12-note themes, big band scoring and free jazz ‘harmonies’, as well as evocations of medieval music and an extraordinary version of Arabic folk music. Who else was doing ‘world music’ this well, or at all, in 1959? A well-deserved repeat of Mark Turnage’s 15 year old viola concerto On Opened Ground and a transparent account of Scriabin’s usually not-so-transparent Poem of Ecstasy completed this beautifully composed programme. Newly enthused to hear some more stunning orchestral combinations, but un-hopeful about the habitual diet of the coming London winter season, I found good news to hand in the printed programme: two Knussen/Britten Sinfonia concerts are coming up at the Barbican and Milton Court in October.