Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Oliver Knussen reaches 60 this year, and the British orchestras with whom he regularly works are queuing up to celebrate. The latest in line was the City of Birmingham Symphony for whom Knussen devised a programme that framed his own Whitman Settings and Berg's Altenberg-Lieder with music by Ravel and Debussy.
The song cycles make a well-matched pair. In the first of Knussen's settings, When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer, the way in which the music unpacks itself until it can relax into serene contemplation seems to correlate nicely with the first of the Altenberg-Lieder, in which Berg accumulates layers of ostinato to build a fierce, quickly quenched climax before the voice is allowed to enter. Both cycles regularly encompass huge emotional spans and meticulous, glowing orchestral detail within their tightly organised musical structures. Both also contain some demandingly stratospheric soprano writing, and Claire Booth was the soloist here. She was wonderfully assured in the Knussen, and soared easily over the densest textures in the Berg, without ever losing the sense of a musical phrase or the meaning of any of the text. They were beautiful performances, raptly rhapsodic.
Knussen had begun with a superbly well-played account of Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales that was languorous enough when it needed to be, but consistently poised and precise, too. It certainly didn't ladle on the Gallic charm, always keeping the music at a respectable distance. Debussy's Nocturnes offered more of the same, the textures gleaming as if the scenes the music depicts had just benefited from a short, sharp shower of rain. The female section of the CBSO Youth Chorus supplied the wordless voices of the sirens in the final movement; Knussen had placed them on stage, behind the orchestra, so that everything about the performance was immediate and sharply focused.
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