Busking it till a fairy godmother turns up

'I'd willingly do a Glenn Gould tomorrow': Oliver Knussen, reluctant conductor (or so he sometimes says), talks to Stephen Johnson
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Just over a year ago the London Philharmonic Orchestra announced that it would soon be conductorless. The controversial young Austrian, Franz Welser-Most, was leaving - ironically, just at the point when he was starting to attract some good critical notices in this country. The Independent ran a semi-serious piece, Wanted: Conductor, with a list of possible successors, including (as a "wild card") the British composer- conductor Oliver Knussen. The response was interesting - one or two indignant splutters, but many more signals of approval.

Well, why not Knussen? His track record with the London Sinfonietta, and more recently with the BBC Symphony and the Residentie Orkest in The Hague, has been impressive - importantly, the players seem to agree. Yes, his repertoire has remained focused on the 20th century, but it is growing steadily - which is more than can be said for many star conductors. The only thought-provoking objection came from a fellow composer: "Do you want to stop him writing altogether?"

Knussen remembers that Independent piece well. "I liked it - I got quite a laugh out of it!" But did he think the suggestion was entirely ludicrous? "Well, at first I thought I'd only ever allow myself to do guest conducting. But I admit I've got a big charge out of working with one orchestra a lot. They know what you want and you know what they can give, and you end up trusting each other. If you're demanding - which I guess I am - you can get what you need so much quicker.

"I've been spoilt by working with a crack group like the Sinfonietta, though that's only a very small group of people. But it's only now that I'm getting confident - ie not waking up in a panic before every first rehearsal. But all I really want is to write good pieces and get a few things right in performance. Your suggestion - me in charge of a London orchestra - was a lovely idea. I'm just not screamingly ambitious for it, and there are so many others out there who are - that's what made me laugh!"

Ambitious or not, Knussen the conductor has now been given an expensive seal of approval by the giant German recording company Deutsche Grammophon. Discs of music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Colin Matthews appear this month, and more will follow. How did Knussen feel about being adopted by the powerful "Yellow Label"?

"I was incredibly resistant at first. I couldn't see how it fitted in with what I'm about. I made every effort to show them they were out of their minds, but they've come more than half-way and made all sorts of compromises about repertoire. It's an astonishing act of faith on their part and I'm very happy about it."

It may be significant that one of his first discs should be of music by Stravinsky, one of the most famous composer-conductors in the recording studio. The Independent's Bayan Northcott once described Stravinsky's style of articulation in the later stereo recordings as "bell-like", and Knussen strikes me as one of the very few conductors today with the ability to re-create it. Does he try to emulate Stravinsky's own sound? "Yes, in a way. But this brings up the whole question of what we can usefully learn from composers' own recordings. What I find fascinating in the recordings of Stravinsky, Britten and Elgar is the way that they articulate - it's not a question of mimicking tempi."

Stravinsky, Britten and Elgar make an intriguing threesome, and Elgar is certainly not a name I expected to hear, though it turns out that Knussen the conductor has a special fondness for the enigmatic tone-poem Falstaff. So what has Knussen learnt from Elgar as conductor?

"Elgar flies - that's the only word for it. It's not a question of things being together, it's drawing lines, and it's usually incredibly rapid. You see all these notes flying past and most of them are there, astonishingly; but the big pieces never sound prolix in those old recordings - there's never any stuffing and it all flows across the bar-lines. As for Stravinsky - the recordings I value most are not the famous later ones, but the mono ones he made between the mid-Forties and the late Fifties. There's that bell attack, with just enough warmth - that tends to get sucked out in the later recordings by the way the instruments were miked."

Enough of other composer-conductors; what about Knussen himself? He's booked for two Proms this year. The first, this Thursday, was originally scheduled to include the premiere of his own long-awaited orchestral work Chiara. When I met him the week before last, I asked the composer how it was going; the reply was an ominous "Wait and see". And now, this week, a BBC press release announces that "extensive teaching and conducting commitments have not allowed adequate time for Oliver Knussen to complete his Prom commission Chiara."

The Proms press office has put a brave face on it, pointing out the fact that the substitute piece, Knussen's Choral, was written as a kind of curtain-raiser to Mahler's Second Symphony, and that, in Thursday's revised programme, it now precedes Todtenfeier, an early version of that symphony's opening movement.

But at the time of our conversation, Knussen conceded that his record on meeting deadlines has not been exactly encouraging. "I think I know why it is. The problems started years ago when I took on two operas, having never written anything that lasted longer than 15 minutes. I simply wasn't ready for it. And now, having to earn my living from conducting means that time is a problem. I actually write very fast - when I get round to it."

Two years ago, he relinquished the running of the contemporary music festival at Tanglewood in the USA. "I regretted that very much," he admits, "but I got two short pieces written and one big one that summer. So now I'm having to manage my time between effectively guest conducting and composing. I need at least six weeks free to get anything down. I'd willingly do a Glenn Gould tomorrow and give up live appearances. It's not a negative distraction to work at getting something right on record and creating something that lasts. What's depressing is working like... God knows what, and then it's gone. I'm not someone who gets an enormous buzz out of doing things in public. If my fairy godmother appeared and said, 'Here's enough money so you don't have to do any more conducting, just a few records each year,' I'd give it up - just like that."

But as the conversation finally turns to Knussen's two Prom programmes, the balance begins to shift again. He's looking forward, he says, to the challange of doing Hans Werner Henze's Fourth Symphony in concert - "and then there's Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and The King of the Stars - I love that piece, it's like Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in five minutes. Oh God, I love saying things like that. Someone once asked me what my Winnie-the-Pooh songs were like and I said, 'Boulez's Marteau sans maitre for the under-fives'!"

Is this the new Glenn Gould introspectively seeking perfection in the hermetic solitude of the recording studio, unconcerned by the "live" effect? Somehow I doubt it.

n Knussen conducts Mahler (Todtenfeier; What the Wild Flowers Tell Me, arr Britten), Henze (Symphony No 4) and Knussen (Choral), 7.30pm Thurs 3 Aug; and Stravinsky (King of the Stars; Three Russian Sacred Choruses; Requiem Canticles) and Tavener (Protecting Veil) 10pm Mon 7 Aug, at The Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on BBC Radio 3

Photograph by Malcolm Crowthers