This year’s Proms at Cadogan Hall travelled 800 years from Hildegard of Bingen in VOCES8’s opening to today’s closing concert celebrating the work of Oliver Knussen who sadly died last year. Formed earlier this year by Ryan Wigglesworth, successor to Knussen as Sir Richard Rodney Bennett Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, the Knussen Chamber Orchestra provides opportunities for current students and recent graduates to perform alongside professional colleagues. Focussing on Knussen’s chamber music, works from four other contemporary composers were also on the programme. A great variety of styles and instrumentations therefore, although interesting to note the prevalence of the “quiet start, build in complexity and energy before dying away again” model – the odd climactic finish might have added more celebration to the proceedings.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

To start, two Fantasias, one “upon one note” by Knussen, followed by one “upon all the notes” from Harrison Birtwistle. In Knussen’s, “after Purcell” (for piano, violin, cello and clarinet), the mood constantly shifts between Purcellian harmonies and contrapuntal entries and stranger, shifting musical sands. But the “one note” of C provides an anchor throughout and the final playful section settles on a quiet consonant cadence.

For Birtwistle’s Fantasia, a septet (string quartet plus flute, clarinet and harp), Wigglesworth took up the baton. Opening with ominous woodwind, glassy violins, sliding cello and tolling harp, followed by some aggressive stabbing led by the violins, the woodwind then have a surprisingly lyrical, if angular duet, but thereafter, the tension and pace build. Ultimately, however, following clashing rhythmic outbursts, the music subsides and dies to nothing, leaving the instruments pecking out final interjections before the silence takes over.

Freya Waley-Cohen described two inspirations for Naiad (BBC commission and world premiere): the death of her teacher and “dinner friend” Knussen and, from walks in the countryside, a focus on fine detail, such as a fish scale or a spider’s web. Adding a piano to Birtwistle’s septet, the music is initially slow paced with watery piano cascades and echoing falling phrases, the harp then has a more rhapsodic moment, which introduces the increasing elements of filigree detail, picked up by the violins but eventually passed around all the strings, leading to a dancing, echoing violin duet. Eventually, a Copland-esque woodwind duet emerges, over glassy violin harmonics, the duet then echoed with viola and cello harmonics, bringing this highly atmospheric piece to a quiet, contemplative conclusion.

Knussen’s Study for Metamorphosis was originally intended as the beginning of a much larger piece that never came to fruition. However, it stands alone as an impressive solo work for bassoon, played here by Jonathan Davies. The piece wears its virtuosity lightly, exploiting the lyrical, warm tones of the instrument alongside athletic leaps, birdlike trilling and a few percussive rasps. It is highly rhythmic, and Davies performed here with understated engagement, concluding with impressive control on the final sustained high notes.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied began as a Rilke setting, with Abrahamsen arranging the piece for string trio, cor anglais and piano in 2009. Falling figures throughout reflect the gesture of falling from the original poem, so the violin and viola begin with falling pairs, soon joined by the cor anglais. The piano has a contrastingly rising passage of chorale-like pianissimo chords, but the downward trajectory soon returns and the remainder of the piece focuses on repetition of downward scales, somewhat reminiscent of Pärt – yet unlike Pärt, here resolution is far from conclusive, before another pianissimo ending.

Wigglesworth conducted Alastair Putt’s Halazuni wind quintet, and the building rhythmic entries, repeating and expanding the material, were delivered with tight ensemble. Lyrical lines rise out of the texture, with a bell-like idea emerging for horn and clarinet. The repeating arabesque decoration (Putt’s inspiration taken from Islamic art) is highly effective, as are the cascading, overlapping lines and the strangely keening horn and bassoon over flute flutters. Activity builds, with rising scale patterns and twittering figures, with a livelier if still somewhat subdued conclusion.

Knussen’s Songs without Voices draws on Walt Whitman nature lyrics for three movements, followed by a memorial to Andrzej Panufnik for its finale. For octet of piano quartet, flute, clarinet, cor anglais and horn, “Winter’s Foil” opens with a horn call over shimmering strings, with rhythmic interjections from others, whereas “Prairie Sunset” focuses on a dramatic cello solo, again with shimmering accompaniment. “First Dandelion” almost dances, with a fluttering, free airiness. The “Elegiac Arabesques” finale opens with a lamenting cor anglais solo, with busier activity building in the second half. Its slightly lumbering gait accelerates to a faster climax, before dying away, and ultimately disappearing into nothing.

An impressive Proms debut from the Knussen Chamber Orchestra in a challenging range of contemporary chamber music, and a fitting tribute to Knussen himself.

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