With Oliver Knussen conducting a programme of his own devising, including his own third symphony and a 60th birthday tribute to him composed by a young admirer, this was very much his Prom - indeed it’s turning out to be his year, with his small but special oeuvre at last being brought into the mainstream.
It was appropriate that he should begin with a work written contemporaneously with his third symphony, and with a very similar sound-world. Alexander Goehr’s ‘Metamorphosen/Dance’ was originally conceived as a ballet sequence for a operatic project based on an episode from the ‘Odyssey’, but its formal inspiration was the game with pulse and tempo which Beethoven played in the finale of his last piano sonata.
It’s an intricate and multi-voiced creation, where stabbing statements by brass and woodwind alternate with lyrical string tenderness, and Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra honoured every detail. Shakespeare’s Ophelia was the literary spur for the symphony Knussen began writing at 21, with cross-cutting and the interplay of textures being his formal preoccupation. The overall effect has a delicately pullulating iridescence, but the force of the work lies in the majestic gear-change at its heart, when, Prospero-like, Knussen magically stills the storm he has created.
Helen Grime’s five-minute ‘Night Songs’ faithfully recreates a Knussen-type sound-world, and it too comes over like an oceanic tone-poem, though with a lighter, more mercurial touch. It seemed impeccably played but Knussen put down his baton, turned to the audience, and unexpectedly said, ‘I have no idea what went wrong there - my glasses fell off - but we’ll play it again anyway’. Whereupon they did, which was a graceful way to give an orchestral will o’ the wisp a slightly better chance to make its mark.
The first-ever Proms performance of Debussy’s ‘The Martyrdom of St Sebastian’, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the New London Chamber Choir, was a revelation. D’Annuncio’s symbolist text was inspired by androgynous sado-masochism, while Debussy’s music was fired by a desire to sing of his inner landscape ‘with the naive candour of childhood’, and the result - revisiting the sound-world of ‘Pelleas’ - has a wonderfully somnambulist momentum. With Claire Booth, Knussen’s soprano of choice, in the solo part, this extraordinary work finally soared into the empyrean.