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Knussen: Symphonies No 2 & 3, Ophelia Dances,Trumpets / Tilson Thomas, Barry, Hirst, Collins

Knussen / Barry / Hurst / Nash Ensemble
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  Nmc   Catalog #: 175   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Oliver Knussen
Performer:  Ian MitchellDward PillingerLinda HirstMichael Collins,   ... 
Conductor:  Michael Tilson ThomasOliver Knussen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia OrchestraLondon Sinfonietta
Number of Discs: 1 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

KNUSSEN Symphonies: No. 2; 1 No. 3 2. Trumpets 3. Ophelia Dances, Book 1 4. Coursing 4. Cantata 5 1,3,4 Oliver Knussen, cond; 2 Michael Tilson Thomas, cond; Read more 1 Elaine Barry, 3 Linda Hirst (sop); 2 Philharmonia O; 1,4 London Sinfonietta; 5 Nash Ens NMC D175 (58:21)

This program originally appeared on a Unicorn-Kanchana CD in 1988; NMC is a little coy about disclosing that fact. Reissue is, in fact, only mentioned once in passing, in Bayan Northcott’s excellent prefacing comments, and no notice appears on the outside. However, no complaints will be heard from this quarter, even if a copy of the original has since been found tucked away in my collection, as NMC is doing admirers of contemporary music a huge service by making these important premiere recordings available again.

This is a unique opportunity to observe one of the exceptional musicians of the 20th (and 21st) century refining his craft. Oliver Knussen’s Second Symphony, completed in 1971, is a strikingly original, even precocious statement from a 19-year-old composer. The ghosts of Mahler and the Second Viennese School are still floating nearby, but this is clearly the work of a unique musical intellect. The inspirations were the haunted, death-tinged imagery of poets Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath, which Knussen shapes into a symphonic song cycle of often fragile, restlessly nocturnal expression. From the brilliantly evocative ambiguities accompanying the surreal descent into sleep, to the nightmare dreamscapes over shimmering layers of freely deployed 12-tone series, to the dawn-tinged An die Schwester with its notorious (to modernists) moment of repose in an A-Major triad, everything about this symphony proclaims the incipient virtuoso artist.

The dramatic Third Symphony confirmed that virtuosity, though its genesis was a protracted one. Knussen conceived the work in 1974 as a dance-based symphonic poem on Shakespeare’s Ophelia: her madness, her death, and her funeral cortège. The extended gestation was a result of a complete reappraisal of the project and the eventual development of the material into this tightly structured, abstract but still highly theatrical three-movement symphony, with, as Knussen suggests in his notes, “the shade of Ophelia hovering in the background.” Tonality is ambiguous, but there is a tendency toward something like a key and a structure around a pair of three-note cells that assures the listener can find his or her way. Michael Tilson Thomas, who encouraged and premiered the original version, as well as presenting the symphony in its definitive form to the enthusiastic 1979 Proms audience, led this riveting recording in 1981, with the Philharmonia in blazing form.

Growth in assurance and skill between the two symphonic statements is clearly apparent, and the four shorter works provide milestones to the process. Trumpets and Ophelia Dances actually use materials from the Third Symphony, and all served as outlets for the perplexed composer and test pieces for the solutions he was finding. Trumpets is a work for a soprano soloist and three clarinets, a setting of the disturbing Trakl poem of the same name. At four minutes in length, it is intensely concentrated, the setting accentuating both the idyllic nature imagery and the blunt brutality of the poem’s implications. The fanfares of the symphony find a natural extension in the harrowing trumpet calls of the song. Of Ophelia Dances, Book 1 for a nonet of winds, strings, and keyboard instruments (there is no Book 2, but there is a recent Ophelia’s Last Dance ), Knussen writes, “the light-headed and giddy qualities … suggest a crossing of the line that divides laughter from tears.” Just over seven minutes long, it consists of a prelude, four dances increasingly compact in construction and distraught in tone, and a gentle extended coda to sing Polonius’s daughter to her rest. More acute listeners than I may hear Schumann’s Carnaval , and Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux and Gigues serving as Ophelia’s “snatches of old tunes.”

The other two works are no less revealing. Cantata for oboe and string trio reveals a lyricism in Knussen’s writing for soloist, here the oboe, which is not as evident in the earlier symphony. The structures are no less distinct, and the expression no less concentrated, but the singing somehow seems freer, and deeply affective even without the explicit program. The Nash Ensemble, which commissioned the work, provides its customary perceptive performance. Coursing for chamber orchestra was inspired by a viewing of the rapids of the Niagara Falls. A musical ride over the falls in a barrel, the work is all energy and complexity, brilliantly constructed and amazingly effusive (and technically challenging) for its five-minute duration.

In all of the performances not previously attributed, Knussen, a gifted conductor of his and other’s contemporary scores, is the perfect guide. The London Sinfonietta is beyond praise. This is, therefore, self-recommending to any devotee of contemporary music who does not own the earlier—and to my ear identical—release on Unicorn-Kanchana.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Trumpets, Op. 12 by Oliver Knussen
Performer:  Ian Mitchell (Bass Clarinet), Dward Pillinger (Clarinet), Linda Hirst (Mezzo Soprano),
Michael Collins (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 4 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Symphony no 3, Op. 18 by Oliver Knussen
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973-1979; United Kingdom 
Venue:  Watford Town Hall, Watford, Hertfordshir 
Length: 2 Minutes 12 Secs. 
Ophelia Dances for orchestra, Book 1, Op 13 by Oliver Knussen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: Modern 
Length: 7 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Coursing for chamber orchestra, Op. 17 by Oliver Knussen
Performer:  John Constable (Piano), Paul Archibald (Trumpet), Sebastian Bell (Flute),
Gareth Hulse (Oboe), Christopher van Kampen (Cello), Roger Chase (Viola),
Robin McGee (Double Bass), Phillip Eastop (Horn), Joan Atherton (Violin),
James Holland (Percussion), David Purser (Trombone), Nona Liddell (Violin),
John Orford (Bassoon), Michael Collins (Clarinet)
Conductor:  Oliver Knussen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: Modern 
Written: 1979; United Kingdom 
Length: 5 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Cantata for oboe & string trio, Op. 15 by Oliver Knussen
Performer:  Roger Chase (Viola), Christopher van Kampen (Cello), Gareth Hulse (Oboe),
Marcia Crayford (Violin)
Period: Modern 
Length: 10 Minutes 24 Secs. 
Symphony no 2, Op. 7 by Oliver Knussen
Performer:  Elaine Barry (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1970-1971 
Venue:  St. John's Smith Square, London, England 
Length: 4 Minutes 29 Secs. 

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