Review: CBSO & Knussen; Snape Maltings; Aldeburgh Festival; June 17

A concert of Birtwhistle, Bartok, Ives, Carter and Knussen might appear challenging but under the baton of Oliver Knussen, one of the finest conductors of modern music, it proved an absorbing and sometimes thrilling evening. The CBSO were joined by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and extra stage space was required to accommodate all performers.

The concert began with Harrison Birtwhistle’s Cantus lambeus, scored for single strings, wind, piano, harp and percussion. The piece emerges from nowhere but soon develops a vital, propulsive force and set the evening off to a purposeful start.

Bartok’s Three Village Scenes drew their material from the songs of Slovakia and the ladies of Exaudi cleverly captured the East European flavour of the vocal writing. Lad’s Dance was especially exhilarating with its driving rhythm and vivid orchestration.

Ives’ Fourth of July requires two conductors at various stages, such is the cumulative effect of so much disparate material. Nevertheless the music brilliantly captures the atmosphere of America’s special day, not only in the actual tunes but in the general sense of fun.

Elliott Carter, still composing at 103 was 98 when he wrote Interventions for piano and orchestra and here given its UK premiere. It is a substantial work with some powerful and sustained writing for strings and several rapidly falling figures for the soloist. Pierre-Laurent Aimard dispatched the technical difficulties with aplomb and both orchestra and soloist found a nobility in the slower passages.


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The emotional core of the evening was a performance of Knussen’s Requiem- Songs for Sue and composed in remembrance of Sue Knussen. In it Knussen sets poetry from Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, WH Auden and Rainer Maria Rilke to music with an unerring feel for the words and their emotional content. Dawn Upshaw was outstanding both in clarity of diction and in her control of the climaxes. This was a deeply felt performance and would have touched many hearts.

A second appearance from Charles Ives – Three Places in New England and with a rousing performance of Putnam’s Camp - concluded this fine concert. The display of affection and respect in which Oliver Knussen is clearly held by both the public and professional musicians provided a final moment of pleasure.

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Gareth Jones

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