Oliver Knussen has a reputation for presenting interesting and unusual programmes, and this evening in the sumptuous Barbican Hall was no exception. This concert featured new and rarely-performed music, including both a world première and a UK première.

Oliver Knussen, © Clive Barda
Oliver Knussen,
© Clive Barda

The opening Symphony no. 10 by Nikolai Miaskovsky was a triumph. It is a fascinating, daring piece – like so much Soviet music produced in the twenties – bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm. Its sixteen minutes are a rich and complex listening experience that was performed with clarity and flair. Knussen’s conducting is a treat to behold; from his seated position the orchestra obeyed his every command as he led them through the programmatic music depicting the story of Yevgeny from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman. An exciting opening of simple melodic statements supported dramatically by timpani pricked the ears of all, and from here the piece lurched into dramatic, fast-moving and largely discordant music. This was a creepy, sinister soundworld as woodwind was added to strings, then the brass joined in as the music swayed toward a swirling climax which gave way to a delicious, anguished violin solo. A solo line that was to return at the choicest moment towards the end sent shudders down the spine.

Following this symphony was Alexander Goehr’s brand new piece When Adam Fell; the performance didn’t quite match up to the Miaskovsky. The orchestra were not so grounded, the exposed trumpet lines felt unconvincing and once a seed of doubt is sewn it’s difficult to listen with the level of confidence needed for the music to sweep the listener away. The final section of the piece stands out, however, as pitched instruments engaged a strange dialogue with the unpitched percussion playing an unyielding, mysterious rhythm.

After the interval we heard Niccolò Castiglioni’s Concerto for Orchestra – a six minute riot that I was delighted to hear again, Knussen repeating the piece immediately. In this piece the conductor acts for large sections simply as a metronome, marking time for the pregnant pauses that litter the piece and build fantastic tension. This was the standout piece for me and it begs the question why only now, 49 years after its completion it is receiving its UK première. The concerto nature of the performance was transparent and delightful, each section taking their turn at performing layered, virtuosic lines that contributed, like a mosaic, to the overall, wonderful picture.

To end on Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1 in its expanded version for full orchestra made perfect sense of the programme. Despite Schoenberg’s reputation as the pioneer of ‘difficult’ atonality, in this programme the lush harmonies and swells of Schoenberg’s music felt the most traditional of the evening. Performed here was an arrangement Schoenberg made in 1935 when living in Hollywood that fills out the orchestral texture even more than his first expansion to full orchestra made in 1922. Considering the original chamber version was received with astonishment, I couldn’t help but feel this orchestral version lost the edge that Schoenberg originally sought to achieve.

This concert was fascinating; a typically exciting Knussen programme that in the end was perhaps more interesting than it was uplifting.