Author Topic: Oliver Knussen  (Read 4361 times)

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Offline James

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Oliver Knussen
« on: December 31, 2010, 05:41:31 AM »
Oliver Knussen is one of British music's great originals, and a rare example of a contemporary composer who has succeeded in writing music that is at once thoroughly modern but also shamelessly enjoyable. Knussen's combination of artfulness and accessibility informs every aspect of his music. It is technically complex and often fiendishly challenging for performers, but also vivid and direct in it's appeal. It is painstakingly crafted (Knussen is a notorius perfectionist, and a famously slow composer) but in performance sounds captivatingly effortless and spontaneous. His pieces are typically short (few movements exceed five minutes), and yet Knussen generally packs so much musical incident into even the briefest timespans that one hardly thinks of him as a miniaturist. And although some of his works have a childlike quality and a certain undersized, toy-box charm, they conceal, like the chidren's books of his operatic collaborator Maurice Sendak, complex and very adult depths.

Born in 1952 into a musical family (his father, Stuart, was principal double bassist of the Lond Symphony Orchestra for many years), Knussen was something of a prodigy as both composer and performer, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his first symphony at the age of just fifteen. Two further symphonies followed during the 1970s, along with a sequence of beautifully crafted pieces for smaller ensembles such as Ophelia Dances (1975), Cantata (1975) and Coursing (1979). Most of the 1980s were occupied by work on a pair of chamber operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, which confirmed Knussen's stature as one of the brightest talents of his generation. The operas  also saw a new playfulness creeping into his musical style, along with an increasing opening up to past influences (such as when, in Wild Things, Max is crowned Kind of the Wild Things to a famous phrase borrowed  from the coronation music in Boris Godunov - a small but wonderfully apt comic touch). Meanwhile, Knussen was taking on an increasingly busy conducting schedule, appearing with many leading ensembles and accepting the post of artistic director at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Following the completion of the two operas, Knussen returned to mainly instrumental formats in the 1990s, often writing for relatively modest forces and crafting works that were small in scale, but not in effect. The results included the Horn Concerto, Two Organa, Songs Without Voices (1992), and, more recently, the Violin Concerto (2002). Although entirely of their time, these works often cast loving backward glances towards past masters such as Perotin, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Debussy and Britten - reflecting Knussen's desire to establish "an active relationship with music that attracts me from afar", and his instinct "that a whiff of something recognizable can help the first-time listener find some bearings in what is sometimes a profusion of activity - a sense that while the settings of some of these fairy tales may be forests, and quite dense ones at that, they are neither necessarily forbidding nor unwelcoming ones."

CHAMBER OPERAS
Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, provided the perfect subject for Knussen's first opera, telling the story of a mischievous boy, Max, who, having been sent to bed without any supper, sails off to a land inhabited by the strange and frightening Wild Things - and comes back home again to find his dinner still warm on the table. Sendak's marvellous book has many of the qualities of Knussen's music. Simultaneously knowing yet naive, it combines a sense of childlike wonder with a trace of the emotional murkiness which gives both book and opera their psychological power. The story also provides plenty of gilt-edged musical opportunities - from moonstruck magic of Max's sea-crossing to the Bacchanalian frenzy of the Wild Rumpus - all of which Knussen seizes gleefully.

Wild Things forms part of an operatic double bill with Knussen's second chamber opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, also to a libretto by Sendak. Although the latter work doesn't quite match Wild Things for the dramatic cogency and expressive power, its surreal fairy-tale plot and unusual cast of characters (the lead role is taken by a dog, accompanied by various other animals, plus a baby, a tree and a potted plant) offer Knussen scope for plenty of off-beat musical fun and games, culminating in the mock-Mozartian finale - a miniature opera within an opera.



Knussen remains unchallenged as a performer of his own works, making light of the complex textures and attacking the more energetic passages with exhilarating bravado. Lisa Saffer pulls off the challenging part of Max in Wild Things with wonderful vocal agility and a bright, boyish tone, while Cynthia Buchan makes an unforgettably tragi-comic Sealyham terrier in the lead role of Higglety Pigglety Pop!

SYMPHONIES
Knussen's Symphony No. 1, written when he was just fifteen, was subsequently withdrawn, so his first extant orchestral work is the Symphony No. 2 (1971), completed at the advanced age of nineteen. Displaying an astonishing assurance and originality for one so young, this symphony-cum-song cycle (setting poems by Trakl and Plath) shows his rare ability to evoke mood and scene through vivid vocal and instrumental writing which was later to bear fruit in his operas. By contrast, the Symphony No. 3 (1979) is purely instrumental, although again an implicit drama (a musical depiction of Shakespeare's Ophelia) underpins the character of the instrumental writing. The dramatically deranged first movement depicts Ophelia's madness, while the magical second - one of Knussen's most majestic creations - evokes her drowning and death in seven luminous variations on twelve huge chords, which develop into a gigantic, solemn processional before the dissolving back into the music of the symphony's opening.



An excellent introduction to Knussen's music of the 1970s, with dramatic accounts of Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 (the latter in a sumptuous account by the Philharmonia conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas) alongside several of his finest early works for smaller ensembles such as Ophelia Dances and Coursing, performed with magnificent elan by the London Sinfonietta.


HORN CONCERTO
Perhaps the finest of Knussen's orchestral works, however, is the Horn Concerto (1994). Comprising a single movement lasting some twelve minutes, it carries an expressive punch far greater than its modest length would suggest. The ghost of Mahler (with a hint of Britten) hovers over much of the piece - the concerto's working title was Night Air, and Knussen himself has compared it to one of the Nachtmusik movements from Mahler's symphonies. The work's tantalizing oblique nods to tradition, its nocturnal harmonies and haunting post-romantic melodic writing are irresistible, and its closely argued structure (an ingeniously twisted sonata-form movement) and harmonic logic ensure that, like all Knussen's music, it rewards careful and repeated listening.



A wonderful performance of the Horn Concerto by dedicatee Barry Tuckwell is just one of the highlights of this immensely rewarding CD, conducted by the composer and collecting together some of his most memorable orchestral and chamber works of the 1980s, as well as the virtuoso Whitman Settings for soprano. A joy from start to finish.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #1 on: December 31, 2010, 08:06:59 AM »
Judging from the many responses this thread has received so far (sarcasm), I'm not sure if many people are aware of Knussen the composer, but many, I'm quite certain, are familiar with his work on the podium.

I have not heard any of Knussen's music, so I can't comment on his compositions, but I will say he's a great conductor and I have enjoyed his Takemitsu and Britten recordings.
« Last Edit: December 31, 2010, 08:28:00 AM by Mirror Image »
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Offline springrite

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #2 on: December 31, 2010, 08:32:52 AM »
The fine CD containing the 2 symphonies, etc. is the only Knussen CD I have. I do like it very much.

I had the opportunity to go to Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! in the early 90's (double bill, Los Angeles Opera) but did not go. I picked Fiery Angel instead.

Would be interested in getting more of Knussen's work in the future.

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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #3 on: December 31, 2010, 08:55:19 AM »
I love his conducting of Stockhausen & Carter.


I'll probably pickup some of his music in the future as I have nothing of his represented in my collection. He does sound like an interesting composer for sure. Thanks for creating this thread.
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Offline The new erato

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #4 on: September 26, 2012, 01:54:59 AM »
Thanks. I bought the reissue of the symphonies disc, and want to explore more.

Offline edward

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #5 on: September 27, 2012, 01:45:28 AM »
That looks like quite a promising collection, with much of the material new on disc. Pity that the recording of the violin concerto is the same live Proms performance that was already released on DG, but you can't have everything. (I assume Ophelia's Last Dance is a separate work from the early Ophelia Dances originally released on Unicorn and reissued on NMC.)
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Offline lescamil

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #6 on: September 27, 2012, 04:11:06 AM »
(I assume Ophelia's Last Dance is a separate work from the early Ophelia Dances originally released on Unicorn and reissued on NMC.)

Ophelia's Last Dance is a wonderful medium work for piano that I think was performed at the Proms recently by Nicolas Hodges. You can hear it here:

http://www.npr.org/2011/02/28/134131138/kirill-gersteins-classical-and-jazz-conundrum
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #7 on: March 10, 2013, 07:46:53 PM »
Happy to announce I've got quite a few Knussen recordings on the way...





I've got to say I thought quite highly of the Horn Concerto when I listened to it earlier today on YouTube. Barry Tuckwell's performance was exemplary. The music was just so textural and, dare I say, accessible. I know that's a dirty word for contemporary composers. ::) ;)
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #8 on: March 10, 2013, 09:32:56 PM »
One reason my memory was jolted about Knussen was an article in the BBC Music Magazine June 2012 issue. This was a pretty interesting read.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2013, 09:50:53 PM by Mirror Image »
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Offline lescamil

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #9 on: March 10, 2013, 11:35:43 PM »
You really must listen to the symphonies. The second symphony is perhaps the best work you'll hear by a teenager (by a recent composer, at least). It's amazing to hear it and learn that it was written by an 18 year old. The third is excellent as well.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #10 on: March 11, 2013, 06:55:43 AM »
You really must listen to the symphonies. The second symphony is perhaps the best work you'll hear by a teenager (by a recent composer, at least). It's amazing to hear it and learn that it was written by an 18 year old. The third is excellent as well.

Believe it or not, I'm quite anxious to listen to his operas. They're said to inhabit the same magical world as Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #11 on: March 13, 2013, 11:42:33 AM »
Received this box set today:



The reason why I'm posting here about this is I wanted to comment on how AWESOME the design of this box set is. Fantastic booklet which obviously contains the libretto, the two CDs are housed in a gatefold case which has pop-up art from a set of Where The Wild Things Are with the monsters and kid. Freakin' ingenious the way this set was designed. Major props to DG. This is the best work I've ever seen them do. Now, if the music is half as awesome as the design of the box set, then this is going to be some astonishing music.

Edit: It baffles me why these operas are OOP. ??? I mean what the hell is wrong with these labels? They release something then cut it, then release it again, then cut it...it's such a dumb, illogical cycle.
« Last Edit: March 14, 2013, 01:56:58 PM by Mirror Image »
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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #12 on: March 14, 2013, 04:14:56 AM »
Something interesting about Knussen is the number of contemporary British composers who cite him as an influence. Often with reference to his piece Ophelia Dances, which i found a fairly pleasant listen, somewhat reminiscent of Ravel or toned-down Dutilleux. He's definitely been at the forefront of a British "mainstream" which to varying degrees seems to dominate the commissions, Proms, etc as representatives of "New Music" -- George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and so forth. It comes fairly close to being a school.

Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Oliver Knussen
« Reply #13 on: March 14, 2013, 01:58:20 PM »
Something interesting about Knussen is the number of contemporary British composers who cite him as an influence. Often with reference to his piece Ophelia Dances, which i found a fairly pleasant listen, somewhat reminiscent of Ravel or toned-down Dutilleux. He's definitely been at the forefront of a British "mainstream" which to varying degrees seems to dominate the commissions, Proms, etc as representatives of "New Music" -- George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and so forth. It comes fairly close to being a school.

Haven't heard Ophelia Dances yet (just received the recording that contains it today), but if it sounds reminiscent of Ravel and Dutilleux count me in! 8)
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