Royal Albert Hall, London

Classical review: Prom 26 - Oliver Knussen shows brilliance as both curator and conductor

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A concert curated and conducted by Oliver Knussen has as much interest as a new piece by this most reclusive and original of British composers. And Prom 26 – whose works he seems to have chosen because they reflect a fastidious control of detail equal to his own – allowed things which are not normally juxtaposed to shed fresh light on each other.

His opener was a work new to the Proms, Hans Werner Henze’s “Barcarola for large orchestra”. Henze had proposed a classical subtext – rowed across the Styx by Charon the ferryman, a dying man looks back over his life – but it needed no such factitious crutch, particularly given the way the BBC Symphony Orchestra played it under Knussen’s super-refined direction. Despite an underlying suggestion of ebb and flow, this was simply a graceful essay in texture and colour, late-Romantic in the best sense of the word. 

Two of Stravinsky’s works for piano and orchestra formed the concert’s centre of gravity, with the American pianist Peter Serkin making his belated Proms debut. Composed in 1923, “Concerto for piano and wind instruments” radiates all the excitement of Modernism in Twenties Paris. The jazz influences of the outer movements sit side by side with a contrapuntalism recalling that of Bach in its bright clarity of articulation. And there’s no trace of the traditional opposition between soloist and orchestra: using instrumentation which complements the piano’s clean-cut sound, Stravinsky presents his material purely in terms of contrasting tone-colour.

Serkin brought a dry, clean touch to his dialogue with the orchestra, and more than a trace of 19th century opulence to his cadenza in the slow movement, but he was finally defeated by the Albert Hall’s notorious acoustic. Radio listeners would have got a much better sense of instrumental balance than those of us in the hall, where the piano was sometimes inaudible.

Returning to play “Movements” with a tiny ensemble which lacked horns and timpani but was blessed with a harp and celeste, Serkin displayed a watch-maker’s precision as he placed his notes in these pieces of musical pointillisme. Here the sonic balance was perfect, and the 76-year-old Stravinsky’s playfully atonal ruminations worked a treat; he’d certainly have approved of Serkin’s encore, which was Gershwin with a slow, expansive swing. Knussen rounded things off with a performance of Tippett’s Second Symphony which brought out both its singular beauty and its kinship with Stravinsky. In sum, an illuminating event.

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