Classical: History in the making
ENDYMION ENSEMBLE PURCELL ROOM, LONDON
An engagingly informal speaker as well as a canny programme planner, Knussen, seated on the edge of the platform, reflected on his selection at the start of each half. He contradicted, as well as amplified, things in the programme notes, and generally offered many fresh insights into a range of music which is clearly close to his heart. Beginning with the exquisite sequence of Purcell arrangements and derangements written four years ago by Colin Matthews, George Benjamin and Knussen himself for the Purcell tercentenary, the ensemble then moved back a further three years, to Julian Anderson's Seadrift.
Anderson is a former Knussen pupil and this early Walt Whitman setting for soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet and piano demonstrates many of the virtues these two composers share: an acute response to poetic texts articulated with a powerful sense of drama and shaping (here including a lengthy interlude of lively counterpoint for the two wind instruments and mainly the lower part of the piano) and a remarkable rightness and economy of gesture. Both here and later on - in Stravinsky's tiny "Berceuse" and in Berg's two very different settings of "Schliesse Mir die Augen heide" - Nicole Tibbels was equally responsive to the drama of word and gesture, if sometimes applying too much vibrato.
Peter Lieberson may be Knussen's "closest musical friend" but I couldn't get much from his recent sextet, Ziji. But at least its clever instrumental writing allowed us to admire the brilliance, both individual and collective, of the Endymion players. Their sensibility could also be enjoyed in the second half, not least in Busoni's evergreen Berceuse elegiaque of 1909, and in Knussen's own "Sonya's Lullaby" for solo piano, from 1977.
1950s and 1960s constructivism formed the basis of Knussen's 1968 nonet, Processionals, as well as the Lieberson. Though since twice revised, it retains something of the hard-edged qualities associated with the serial heritage both composers share. But Processionals is also, to me, much more musically meaningful and surprisingly personal.
To conclude matters where they began, and to reflect another side of the 1960s, Maxwell Davies's Fantasia and Two Pavans, imaginatively off-the-wall recreations of Purcell from a more innocent era, made an entertaining coda, despite an unscheduled and indulgent appearance by Tibbels as a foxtrotting vamp.
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