Oliver Knussen died unexpectedly four years ago, robbing British music far too soon of one of its most vital and influential figures. Knussen would have been 70 next month, and the London Philharmonic’s celebration of him as both composer and conductor was a timely reminder of how much he is missed. Edward Gardner devoted the first half of his concert to three of Knussen’s own works, and the second to two composers who, in very different ways, had meant so much to him – Britten and Ravel.
Flourish with Fireworks, the four-minute concert opener that Knussen composed for the London Symphony Orchestra in 1988, epitomises the brilliance and densely packed invention of so much of his music. It teems with detail, yet remains lucid and utterly approachable, while the equally intricate orchestral accompaniments to the four Whitman Settings, composed in 1991, form webs of glittering sound that buoy up the soaring vocal lines. Sophie Bevan was the soprano, fully in command of the songs’ almost operatic range, but not quite so convincing in her projection of their admittedly impacted texts.
The soloist in Knussen’s Horn Concerto should have been Ben Goldscheider, but he had been stricken with Covid 24 hours before the concert, and in his place came 19-year-old Annemarie Federle, who was a finalist in the 2020 BBC Young Musician competition and is currently a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Her performance was astonishingly assured. The concerto is one of Knussen’s more enigmatic works, haunted by Mahlerian ghosts and ending with a tiny almost tragic processional, but it has its quota of brilliance, too, including a cadenza that Federle projected superbly.
For the second half, Gardner had made his own selection of music from Britten’s only ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, a work that Knussen championed and in many ways rehabilitated with a superb 1990 recording. If this sequence of bleeding chunks sometimes seemed rather perfunctory, the music is also atypical Britten, with just the occasional identifiable fingerprint (mostly in the string writing) and a lot more that seems close to pastiche. But there were no problems with the second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which Gardner and his orchestra made to dart and glitter with almost savage intensity.