RIP Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Knussen Honorary Doctorate RAM July 2018
Oliver Knussen received an honorary doctorate from the RAM on 5 July 2018.

Saddened to learn of the passing of composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. One of the truly great musicians of our time, Knussen had received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music, where he was Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music, just a few days ago.

A renowned pedagogue as well as a superlative conductor of contemporary music, Knussen held positions with such organizations as London Sinfonietta, Aldeburgh Festival, Tanglewood, BBC Symphony, and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

While not as prolific as some of his contemporaries, his catalog included a number of high quality works. Knussen will be remembered for compositions such as his two Maurice Sendak operas – Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop – orchestra pieces such as the Horn and Violin Concertos and Fanfare with Fireworks, and his settings of Walt Whitman and, in a Requiem for his late wife Sue, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Knussen’s final work, O Hototogismu!, consisted of adaptations of 17th-19th century Haiku poems for soprano and ensemble. It was premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2017.

 

Charlotte Bray: “At the Speed of Stillness”

At the Speed of Stillness

Charlotte Bray

NMC Recordings CD NMC D202

Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor

 

Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.

Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry. 

Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.

The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.