Total Immersion: Oliver Knussen at 60, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican


It wasn’t the packed gallery, it was the row upon row of composers in the stalls whose presence indicated the importance of the Barbican’s ‘total immersion’ weekend devoted to the works of Oliver Knussen for his sixtieth birthday.

Those works number just 35 in all, but as the musicologist Bayan Northcott argued in the programme, without Knussen, Britain’s musical landscape would have been infinitely poorer; most of his works are in constant use, and almost all have been recorded.

The opening event was Netia Jones’s inspired staging of his sweetly Ravelian children’s operas, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and its semi-sequel ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop!’, which I praised on its unveiling at Aldeburgh this summer. The live casts were again led by those brilliant singer-actors Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer, who interacted with back-projections of Maurice Sendak’s drawings which Jones animated in real time, creating not so much surrealism as the heightened reality of the child’s-eye view.

If ever there was a case for putting contemporary opera into commercial rep, this double-bill is it: with Ryan Wigglesworth on the podium, and the Britten Sinfonia on top form, it would be a hit.

But that was only the appetiser. What followed, delivered by a plethora of excellent young singers and instrumentalists, and sometimes conducted by Knussen like a great bear casting spells, were 18 more of those 35 works, and I wouldn’t have missed one.

Knussen’s trademarks are a pellucid transparency, and a sense of the unerring rightness of every note in constructions of dazzling intricacy: of all the composers now working in Britain, his is the sound-world I would most happily inhabit.

From this immersion, certain strands emerged, notably his love for the deepest piano sonorities, for the soprano voice, and for the sound-world of Toru Takemitsu, to whom Knussen’s exquisite piece for piano, ‘Prayer Bell Sketch’, was dedicated. We heard echoes of Berg, Britten, and Ligeti, and some ravishing exercises based on medieval organum.

But if the whole event had a still centre, it was Knussen’s heart-stopping elegy for his dead wife, ‘Requiem - Songs for Sue’, movingly sung by Claire Booth, and re-dedicated on this occasion to the memory of that big-hearted German composer responsible for encouraging not only Knussen but many other young British composers as well, Hans Werner Henze.