BBC SO/Knussen, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Alban Berg was in poor shape, financially and bodily, when he accepted the commission for a violin concerto in 1935, and shattered to learn of the death of Alma Mahler's 18-year-old daughter, Manon, of whom he had been fond.

By the time he had completed and dedicated the work "To the Memory of an Angel", he had suffered the suppurating insect bite that would carry him off by the end of the year aged only 50, so that the Violin Concerto became his own Requiem.

Hearing its posthumous premiere the next spring, the young Benjamin Britten was equally shattered and, although his Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) is rather different in conception, it retains more than an echo of the Berg in its Mahlerian string writing and rocking figures for saxophone.

Putting the two works together in his latest programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Knussen preceded the Berg with his own brief operatic pot-pourri, The Way to Castle Yonder, and the Britten with George Benjamin's recent 15-minute ballet suite, Dance Figures (2006).

The Berg proved extraordinarily touching as the American violinist Leila Josefowicz alternately struggled against the orchestra's deathly summonses and yielded to the deliquescent ebb and flow of Berg's elegiac textures, perfectly paced by Knussen.

Knussen's own exquisitely scored selection of passages from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! perhaps suffered most from the Barbican's seemingly irredeemable acoustics – at once dry, yet tending to fuzz-up mid-register sonorities. Benjamin's more bluffly scored dance sequence, with its striking folkloristic doublings, and stark contrasts of aggressive and remote textures, fared better.

And nothing could blunt the impact of the open-textured edge and sonority of Britten's Sinfonia, composed in memory of his own parents but centring on a headlong evocation of the Apocalypse, which, in this reading, had us on the edge our seats.

Under Knussen's economic yet electrically exact direction, the BBC Symphony Orchestra have rarely sounded more together,intent and impressive. The Radio 3 relay on 8 April should not be missed.

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