Concerts conducted by Oliver Knussen are always impeccably programmed, with surprising connections often teased out between unusual pieces. His 2013 Proms appearance was no exception to this rule, juxtaposing two contrasting works for piano and orchestra by Igor Stravinsky, in between a symphonic sandwich of orchestral pieces by Hans Werner Henze and Michael Tippett. The playing of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Proms debutant Peter Serkin was just as impeccable as the programme, and the whole thing served as ample proof that even a less attention-grabbing Prom will often remain a musical occasion of the highest calibre.

Oliver Knussen © Mark Allan BBC
Oliver Knussen
© Mark Allan BBC

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments dates from 1924, an early work in his “Neoclassical” period. Its intricate contrapuntal passagework and stately, quasi-Baroque gestures fit it snugly into the Neoclassical category: it seems to ape earlier music, but within knowing, affectionate quotation marks which give the music a knotty relationship with irony still somewhat unclear today. The Piano Concerto is at once a tribute to and an emulation of Baroque and Classical styles, as well as a subversion of them. Its central slow movement, all thick, low, murky chords and vague, ponderous melodies, courts but avoids the tender melodism of Mozart. I imagine Stravinsky’s own performances of this movement would have been rather dry, but in its wilful avoidance of expectations it is as self-revealing a movement as any he wrote – and Serkin cut straight to its curious, icy heart here. The lighter outer movements had a sweet, Baroque air, though Serkin’s more playful approach shone a touch more brightly than the BBC Symphony’s playing under Knussen’s taut, modernist watch.

Where the 1924 concerto is thickly scored and looks back to music past, Movements (1958–59) is lean, neat, and spare. Written using Stravinsky’s own version of Schoenberg’s serial method of composition, it grants each note a Webernesque degree of significance, yet retains a slightly more expansive, outward-looking perspective. What it shares with the earlier piece is a certain brittleness: Stravinsky’s craft is so delicate that a single misplaced note, somehow, would derail the whole thing. And there were certainly no slips from these players: all the artists here have such strong credentials in music of this nature that its success was no surprise. Movements will always be an elusive listen, but Serkin and Knussen gave its perfect, delicate structure the best advocacy. Serkin rounded off his Proms debut with an encore of Takemitsu, Utau Dake (“I Just Sing”), perfectly judged, perfectly played, warmly received.

Knussen gave just as strong an advocacy to the pieces either side of the Stravinsky, not only conducting assured performances but holding their scores aloft at the end, directing the applause the way of the compositions themselves. And both seemed deserving, though neither came close to the central Stravinsky. It was a good thing, in fact, that Tippett’s Second Symphony (1956–57) was not placed next to the Piano and Winds Concerto, given how substantially its style is indebted to Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism, with its strong but ambiguous tonal gestures and plodding sense of drive. As it was, the performance (concluding the programme) certainly demonstrated the heft of the Second Symphony, and some beautiful ensemble playing in the slow movement made a great case for Tippett’s gift for colour. Yet the piece still seemed inconsequential; for all its driving rhythms and structural neatness, it lacked the innate sense of purpose that Stravinsky couldn’t help but write into his pieces. Every Stravinsky work sounds like a statement; this was just a sentence.

Henze’s Barcarola (1979), by contrast, was a magisterial opener, full of recognisably Stravinskian gestures but easily different enough to sing its own song. The barcarolle, or Venetian gondolier’s song, has a long and strange history, from the gentle miniatures of Mendelssohn to the wild, depraved journeys into the beyond of Liszt in his final years. Swaying gently, Henze’s gondola travels somewhere new, the dark dirge of most of it transformed at the end into ethereal, translucent string chords. And here as everywhere, the precision of Knussen and the orchestra lent this piece a graceful, glassy sheen. Four different compositions, then, but common threads galore.