REVIEWS: CLASSICAL - BBC SO / Knussen Barbican London oooo9

A NEW piece by Oliver Knussen is invariably an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, less than two weeks before his Cleveland Pictures was due to receive its UK premiere, it was replaced by a work from his former teacher, Gunther Schuller. In the event, the alchemical talents of Knussen the interpreter alleviated any disappointment caused by the late substitution.

Making a disturbing curtain-raiser, Michael Tippett's Praeludium for Brass, Bells and Percussion (1962) resonated with muted horn calls and agitated trumpet flourishes. Scored for the back desks of the orchestra, it gave rise to the spectacle of Knussen conducting across several rows of empty chairs, a visual effect which complemented the distanced celebrations of Praeludium's muffled fanfares. Uncharacteristically wanting in warmth and immediacy, this remote and unsettling work amounted to enigmatic shavings from the workbench of Tippett's recently completed King Priam.

In contrast, Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, from 1959, communicated instantly. The most memorable movement, "Arab Village", skilfully incorporated Arabian folk tunes, evocatively breathed into life by an off-stage flute. "Little Blue Devil" entertained with its bluesy main theme, conductor and orchestra both urbane enough to pull off the jazz elements and avoid the usual knees-up-in-a-morgue effect produced when classically trained orchestral players attempt to swing.

After the interval, Oliver Knussen was presented with the Association of Orchestras Award. Nicholas Kenyon rightly praised Knussen's work as a tireless advocate of modern composers, and in particular his championing of British music. In reply, Knussen paid tribute to the BBC SO, describing them as one of the "undersung treasures" of the orchestral life of this country, claiming they could "play anything anybody chooses to hurl at them".

As if to prove the point, the concert continued with the UK premiere of Elliott Carter's three-minute fiendish firecracker Micomicon (2002). The conductor seized the opportunity to play the compact but richly resourceful work twice, teasing out the complex strands of Carter's teeming invention still further.

Micomicon is inspired by an episode from Don Quixote, and the concert ended with Richard Strauss's vivid depiction of the Spanish knight. Knussen's laser-like dissection of the score cut through decades' worth of accrued interpretational stodge. Strauss originally notated the solo cello part to be played by the principal cellist of the orchestra, and Paul Watkins created a delightful sense of collaboration with his BBC colleagues, while grabbing the big solos with swaggering charisma tempered by a poetic sensitivity. The ending of the work, with the dying Quixote reflecting on his ideals, was artlessly moving.

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