The spirit of Oliver Knussen fills Aldeburgh Festival, plus the best of June’s classical concerts

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The late composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, photographed aged 17 by Patrick Lichfield in 1969 - Patrick Lichfield/Conde Nast
The late composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, photographed aged 17 by Patrick Lichfield in 1969 - Patrick Lichfield/Conde Nast

Oliver Knussen Day/Aldeburgh Festival ★★★★☆

This year the Aldeburgh Festival emerged from the frustrations of the lockdown period with its most ambitious programme ever. It was fitting that in its final weekend the festival paid tribute to the late conductor and composer Oliver Knussen, artistic director of Aldeburgh from 1983 to 1998, with numerous new pieces composed in his honour, and the world premiere of a piece he left unfinished.

Knussen may never have been a household name, but in Aldeburgh he has an aura second only to the glow of reverence that surrounds the festival’s founder, Benjamin Britten. This endlessly curious musician, as big and bear-like in person as his music was exquisite and small, was a stickler for clarity and craftsmanship. He was a musician’s musician, precise and economical in his gestures as a conductor, and endlessly generous to younger musicians.

His compositions could be as beautiful and mysterious as Ravel’s, but in a fleeting, ungraspable way. You hear airy gestures, prismatic shifting colours and occasional outbursts of violence, quickly subsiding into rustling, hooting, child’s story-book mysteriousness.

Such a big personality was bound to make a profound impression on younger composers. So there was a danger that these three tribute concerts, containing around 16 tiny pieces written as gifts or in memory of “Olly” could have sounded very much like “school of Olly” – especially when played alongside eight pieces by Knussen himself.

Another potential problem was that no fewer than 13 of the new pieces were for solo cello, which some might say is too many, even for the most ardent cello-maniac. A few of the tributes had that slightly precious over-refinement that can sometimes dog Knussen’s own music, but some managed to project a very distinct and very un-Olly-like personality in a few precise strokes.

A Song for the Owl by Japanese composer Jo Kondo was as perfectly enigmatic and beautifully shaped as an ancient rune, Kaija Saariaho’s Lullaby in memoriam Knussen had the haunted yearning melancholy that is her trademark. The Last Post – a tune for Olly by Poul Ruders mingled an innocent-sounding folk melody with something more mysterious. Many of the pieces were of finger-twisting difficulty, but all were played by Finnish virtuoso Anssi Karttunen with superhuman concentration.

The most moving of these tributes was the one furthest from Knussen’s own style: Zoë Martlew’s mostly electronic O-lude, based on scraps of Knussen’s own voice recorded in rehearsal, overlaid with what sounded like a scratchy old recording of luminous chords from his 2nd Symphony. For a moment his shade seemed to be with us.

Later, as the sun slanted over the Aldeburgh’s winding creeks and reedbeds, we all reassembled to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform two big-scale works by Knussen. First came his Horn Concerto, thrown off by soloist Martin Owen with terrific bravura; the echoes of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition mingling at times with a distinctly American ambience. It may seem like lèse-majesté to say Knussen might have picked up a harmony or two from Star Wars composer John Williams, but it sounded like it.

Then came Cleveland Pictures, a set of orchestral responses to artworks in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Knussen abandoned these in 2005 and could never be persuaded to finish them, which was evident in their fragmentary feel. In the last one, based on Turner’s The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, it sounded as if the fire had barely started. But one could enjoy the orchestral mastery and the numerous echoes of other composers – including a swirling string passage in the piece inspired by Tiffany/Fabergé clocks that wafted me into the world of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. For a moment the hall seemed filled with another of Aldeburgh’s familiar spirits. IH

Hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert for 30 days via BBC Sounds

LSO/Rattle, St Paul’s Cathedral ★★★★☆

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in St Paul's Cathedral - Graham Westley Lacdao
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in St Paul's Cathedral - Graham Westley Lacdao

Most music shines best in a concert hall, where you can hear all the detail in the appropriate acoustic, the chair is comfy, and there’s a bar handily placed for the interval. But some pieces are simply too grand and heaven-storming for such mundanities. They need somewhere colossal, where the eye can be led upwards to visions of the hereafter and the music can swell and echo until it seems like the sound of heaven itself. And to hell with creature comforts.

The London Symphony Orchestra gave us just such a concert on Thursday night, at St Paul’s Cathedral, but they thoughtfully gave us some proper chairs (and even laid on some Portaloos). Which was just as well, as, in terms of the music, it was a weighty evening.

We heard two rarely heard pieces, both huge and awe-inspiring but in very different ways. Olivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (And I Hope for the Resurrection of the Dead) is a terrifying vision of the last trump which the composer said should be played on mountain-tops, or at least in a cathedral. Berlioz’s Grand symphonie funèbre et triomphale (Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony) was designed to accompany a procession to a memorial column near the Bastille prison in Paris on the 10th anniversary of the 1830 revolution. Interspersed with these were three of Olivier Messiaen’s strange, visionary organ works.

To recreate something of the atmosphere of that day in August 1840, a group of wind and brass players performed the opening Funeral March of Berlioz’s piece outside the cathedral, in a truncated version by the evening’s conductor Simon Rattle. It was strange and touching to hear those solemn lamenting clarinets and the dull funereal thud of the percussion, faint and blurred and misty like a memory or echo of that far-off day.

All very human. But then came some strange glacial twitterings from the organ, which jerked us instantly from a vision of mourning crowds in Paris to somewhere in outer space. This was the “Communion” movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecostal Mass) for organ, in which the twittering sounds were meant to evoke birds, and the tremulous harmonies were perhaps a vision of heaven, but a cold one. It was simply too great an emotional distance to leap over, and felt like a miscalculation. One of Messiaen’s more human early pieces like Le Banquet Céleste would have been better.

After the more animated “Wind of the Spirit” from the same Mass, the wind and brass players of the LSO, ready and waiting on the stage under the cathedral dome, launched into the awe-inspiring chorales, gong strokes and sudden shrieking birdcalls that make up Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. In a concert hall this piece is awesome; in the cathedral, with its six-second echo, it acquired a nimbus of the miraculous.

Finally came all three movements of Berlioz’s great symphony, with the orchestra swelled by musicians from the Guildhall School in London and the Music Academy in Santa Barbara. As with Messiaen’s piece, Rattle paced the performance with enormous care to take account of the acoustic, and no detail was overlooked.

In the percussion, I spotted the small jingling bells of the Pavillon Chinois, a now-obsolete percussion instrument that Berlioz included in his score. Despite the vast, boomy sound, the subtlety of the performance shone through, particularly in the central movement, where solo trombonist Peter Moore gave a dignified yet moving rendition of Berlioz’s imaginary Funeral Oration. Wagner’s admiring description of the piece as “noble and elevated from the first note to the last” seemed absolutely right. IH

The LSO plays an all-Beethoven programme with pianist Maria João Pires at the Barbican, London EC2 on June 30; lso.co.uk

LSO/Rattle/Kanneh-Mason, Trafalgar Square ★★★★☆

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs with Simon Rattle and the LSO in Trafalgar Square - PA
Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs with Simon Rattle and the LSO in Trafalgar Square - PA

The London Symphony Orchestra’s annual free concert in Trafalgar Square has become such a familiar fixture in the cultural calendar that it’s hard to believe it’s only been in existence for 11 years (make that 10, if you subtract the pandemic year of 2020, when it couldn’t take place).

The largesse of the German car manufacturer BMW, which supports the concerts, is certainly needed: these outdoor events are a huge and vastly expensive undertaking. There’s the enormous raised stage, cleverly positioned to embrace two of Trafalgar Square’s lions, floating magically on the stage like friendly deities, then there’s the sound-system, the lights and the small army of security people on hand to usher the crowd of 7,000 people into the enclosure.

They had an easy time of it: the crowd was as docile as you could wish. More than half seemed to be passing tourists. Strolling among the crowds, I found visitors from America, South Africa and Jamaica. One Englishwoman named Jane had brought her young daughter Elizabeth for a birthday treat. “I’m not really a classical fan but I love any kind of music,” she said. “When I was little, my parents played every kind of music in the car, and we do the same for our kids.” Were they looking forward to any piece in particular? “Well, I do love a bit of Gershwin,” she said, referring to the irresistibly sassy, swaying pieces by George Gershwin that book-ended the programme: the Cuban Overture and An American in Paris.

Asking around, that was a sentiment I often heard. Also on the programme were two pieces featuring young star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a brand-new piece by composer/cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson that involved young players from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as well as the LSO’s On Track scheme, which brings the orchestra’s expertise into 10 educational “Music Hubs” in east London. The audience seemed blissfully unaware of any of this, content to trust the LSO to give them a good time, which they certainly did.

And fortunately, the gods smiled on Trafalgar Square as well. Clouds sometimes threatened but they soon dispersed, and though the wind freshened, the LSO’s players had come armed with clothes-pegs to stop their music blowing away. Later the setting sun came out in full force so the second violins were effectively blinded, as was the conductor Sir Simon Rattle when he turned in their direction. But the players are real troopers, and carried on regardless.

The problem with outdoor classical events is that the sound projection is rarely up to the job of capturing the music in all its subtlety. Here, by contrast, the system came as close to that as is humanly possible. We could savour the massed string pizzicatos in Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, as well as James Fountain’s gorgeously nostalgic rendition of the immortal trumpet tune in the middle.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s intimate and subtle performance of Bruch’s melancholy Kol Nidrei and Bloch’s even more melancholy Prayer from From Jewish Life wasn’t obvious outdoor fare, but it certainly held the crowd rapt. Witter-Johnson’s new piece, FAIYA!, in which most of the LSO disappeared to make way for the players from the Guildhall School and On Track, hummed and thrummed with irresistible dancing energy.

Guiding all this with his inimitable mix of relaxed charm and fierce energy was Sir Simon. After Gershwin’s American in Paris, he told us, “We just have to give you one thing more” – before plunging into a Star Wars medley, which the crowd clearly loved best of all. If we’d been indoors, I suspect that it would have brought the house down. Ivan Hewett

Available for 30 days via the LSO’s YouTube channel. Info: lso.co.uk

Rich intimacy: Doric String Quartet
Rich intimacy: Doric String Quartet

Bartók concerts, Aldeburgh Festival ★★★★☆

One way to measure a festival is by the quality of its audience. And audiences don’t come more rapt and attentive than those at the Aldeburgh Festival. They’ll take anything director Roger Wright will throw at them, and come back for more.

They needed that stamina on Friday, when the excellent young Doric String Quartet – alumni of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme – played all six quartets by fearsome Hungarian modernist Béla Bartók, divided across three concerts. Listening to these in one afternoon is like reading TS Eliot’s Waste Land and Rilke’s Duino Elegies at a single sitting. They are monuments to the modernist impulse to renovate and intensify the artistic language, but at the same time they are a very human record of one man’s particular journey. The first two quartets are super-intense, almost over-wrought, with hints of the Balkan folk music that obsessed Bartók only beginning to peep through. In the third and fourth they step centre stage, but so abstracted and purified it’s as if those wheezing hurdy-gurdy and violin melodies have turned to steel. In the final two the clashing-metal dissonance and rigour softens, and in the sixth a sense of impending tragedy as Bartók faced the collapse of his world in 1940 is nakedly revealed.

Some quartets emphasise the constructivist rigour of this almost superhuman music, others bring out the stomping peasant vigour. These performances by the Doric Quartet were wonderful because they simply revealed the music in all its rich humanity, and gave it a special intimate quality I’d never been aware of before. The opening of the Third Quartet, the most aggressively dissonant of the six, had the same tender diffidence as the opening of the hyper-romantic First, where the players gave a lovely drooping grace to the sad opening duet. But they projected the staggering energy of these quartets too, not through sheer volume but by remembering the dictum of Bartók’s friend Zoltán Kodály. “Bartók’s music is like an arrow” he said, and that’s how it sounded here, with each hectic, close-knit phrase seeming to run forwards into the future.

Another thing that made these performances a joy was the luminous beauty of sound, and the perfect tuning. This showed that those notoriously “gritty” harmonies, where close-knit chords fan out above and below an imagined mirror (Bartók was pitiless in his musical logic) can sound thrilling and persuasive. There were flashes of humour here and there, especially in the pert pizzicato dialogues in the Fourth Quartet, and the sudden moment of hurdy-gurdy-like innocence in the Fifth. In the final quartet the players made the sad slow opening melody that began each movement seem more and more pathetic on each appearance. Each time it was brusquely pushed aside by satire or galumphing energy, until in the last movement it was finally accepted. We felt the gathering tragedy of a man and an entire civilisation, in those final broken phrases.

To let us down gently after all that furious concentration, while staying in the same musical climate, the composing/performing electronic duo of Selena Kay and Cerys Hogg (known collectively as KOGG) together with the Ligeti Quartet offered engaging late-evening musings on the folk-melodies Bartók collected from all over the Balkans. Shards of Bartók’s violin concerto and other works mingled with relaxed percussion grooves and snatches of the folk-recordings he made more than a century ago, while on a screen above we saw lovely old footage of Hungarian folk-dancing. Those images brought us closer to Bartok’s roots, but the laid-backness of the music seemed very 21st-century, and a million miles from Bartók’s fraught intensity. IH

The Aldeburgh Festival runs until June 26; brittenpearsarts.org. Hear highlights on BBC Radio 3