Cleveland Museum of Art

Friday, June 24, 2022

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk

Long anticipated, Oliver Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures has finally been publicly performed as well as broadcast live, and this BBCSO concert was the culmination of the Aldeburgh Festival’s Oliver Knussen Day,

Commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra, which ceded the premiere to Aldeburgh but will give the first US outing in due course, Cleveland Pictures is outlined as follows:

From Rodin and Fabergé to Goya and Turner, each movement of the Cleveland Pictures brilliantly translates a different item from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art into sound. Even in its incomplete form, at 15 ½ minutes the work ranks as one of Knussen’s most extensive orchestral statements. Of seven projected movements, four exist complete, two exist as fully-orchestrated fragments, and one exists only as a 10-bar sketch in short score:

I. Portail avec Penseur (Rodin)     
II. Calabazas (Velásquez)
III. Dans les vagues (Gauguin) [a fragment]
IV. Two Clocks (Tiffany/Fabergé)
V. St. Ambrose (Goya)
VI. Don Quixote (Masson) [sketch only]
VII. The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (Turner) [a fragment]

… every note of these extraordinarily vivid orchestral pieces … [will be] presented exactly as Knussen left them – with no interventions or attempts at completion.” [Faber]

On a first hearing, Cleveland Pictures (which Knussen tried out privately in 2008 with the New World Symphony in Miami but was unhappy with what he’d written at that juncture and, I’m not sure, maybe made little headway during the remaining ten years). What we have though is ravishing, dramatic, expressive, outgoing, intense, and specifically picturesque – unexpectedly so in places, perhaps – fastidiously orchestrated and creatively characterful, suspenseful as to what is coming next, and slightly longer than anticipated at seventeen minutes. This first public performance (can it be termed world premiere?) went splendidly, so too the second one – Knussen often played a new piece twice – and it was good to have a further bite so soon (following the interval), a chance to relish certain features again, not least the rich string-writing, and discover new aspects: a flute line, a Baroque imitation, the crackle of fire, the concertante use of a bass clarinet…

The concert opened with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain in Leopold Stokowski’s graphic if shortened arrangement (which Knussen recorded in Cleveland for DG) made for Disney’s Fantasia, eerie and ghoulish certainly but the cuts do the piece no favours: de-satanised Rimsky-Korsakov’s version may be but it’s so much better, as is the composer’s own untutored original. Stokowski made his own score of Pictures at an Exhibition, also championed by Knussen, so it would have made a change to have had that rather than what has become the ‘everyday’ Ravel orchestration (flawless though it may be), especially given the BBCSO’s recent account under Semyon Bychkov, which really freshened and invigorated this much-put-upon suite, That said, Ryan Wigglesworth, as throughout this concert, led an impressive performance, full of good things, newly realised without intrusions for their own sake; tempos well-judged aiding clarity and articulacy, a concern for timbre, and an acknowledgment that description is already in the music and just needs to be teased out, all done in various ways to illuminating and gratifying effect. (Do try Wigglesworth’s own Clocks from a Winter’s Tale, as recorded here,

Also included was Knussen’s Horn Concerto (1994), written for Barry Tuckwell and premiered in Tokyo. It’s a quixotic, restless and fantastical opus, written for a large, subtly varied, orchestra (including two sets of timpani), the demanding horn solo played by Martin Owen (BBCSO principal) with bravura, lyrical appreciation and tonal and dynamic resource, always audible despite the amount of orchestral incident and detail going on, which contrasts a couple of seismic climaxes with nocturnal fantasy, a winning combination.

As a postscript, I wonder, is there any chance of Knussen’s unfinished Fourth Symphony (commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel) also being played just as the composer left it?

Stokowski’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures; Stokowski conducting the BBCSO at the 1963 Proms, July 23.

Three selections from Knussen’s Cleveland recording of Stokowski’s version, ‘Promenade 1’; ‘Gnomus’; ‘The Old Castle’:

Knussen masterpieces include:

Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto (for Pinchas Zukerman). Clio Gould with Royal Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by the composer; November 24, 2016.

Oliver Knussen’s Symphony No.3: Michael Tilson Thomas’s Philharmonia Orchestra recording.