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Knussen Orchestral Works

Knussen: Orchestral Works
Knussen’s Symphony no.1, written when he was just fifteen, was subsequently withdrawn, so his first extant orchestral work is the Symphony no.2 (1971), completed when he had reached the advanced age of nineteen. Displaying an astonishing assurance and originality for one so young, this symphony-cum-song cycle (setting poems by Trakl and Plath) already shows Knussen’s rare ability to evoke mood and scene through vivid vocal and instrumental writing which was later to bear fruit in his operas.

By contrast, the Symphony no. 3 (1979) is purely instrumental, although again an implicit drama (a musical depiction of Shakespeare’s Ophelia) underpins the character of the instrumental writing. The dramatically deranged first movement depicts Ophelia’s madness, while the magical second – one of Knussen’s most majestic creations – evokes her drowning and death in seven luminous variations on twelve huge chords, which develop into a gigantic, solemn processional before the dissolving back into the music of the symphony’s opening.

Perhaps the finest of Knussen’s orchestral works, however, is the Horn Concerto (1994). The concerto comprises a single movement lasting some twelve minutes, although like so much of Knussen’s music it carries an expressive punch far greater than its modest length would suggest. The ghost of Mahler (with a hint of Britten) hovers over much of the piece – the concerto’s working title was Night Air, and Knussen himself has compared it to one of the Nachtmusik movements from Mahler’s symphonies. The work’s tantalizingly oblique nods to tradition, its nocturnal harmonies and haunting post-romantic melodic writing are irresistible, and its closely argued structure (an ingeniously twisted sonata-form movement) and harmonic logic ensure that, like all Knussen’s music, it rewards careful and repeated listening.

CD Recommendations

Symphonies 2 & 3; Trumpets; Ophelia Dances; Coursing; Cantata: Philharmonia Orchestra; London Sinfonietta; The Nash Ensemble: Barry; Hirst; Tilson Thomas; Knussen (Unicorn-Kanchana UK CD 2010 )
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An excellent introduction to Knussen’s music of the 1970s, with dramatic accounts of Symphonies 2 & 3 (the latter in a sumptuous account by the Philharmonia conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas) alongside several of his finest early works for smaller ensembles, such as Ophelia Dances and Coursing, performed with magnificent elan by the London Sinfonietta.

Horn Concerto; Whitman Settings; Flourish with Fireworks; The Way to Castle Yonder; Two Organa; Music for a Puppet Court: Tuckwell; Shelton; London Sinfonietta; Knussen (Deutsche Grammophon 474 322-2)
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A wonderful performance of the Horn Concerto by dedicatee Barry Tuckwell is just one of the highlights of this immensely rewarding CD, conducted by the composer and collecting together some of his most memorable orchestral and chamber works of the 1980s, as well as the virtuoso Whitman Settings for soprano. A joy from start to finish.
Sheet Music by Knussen