10 Sep 2020

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Knussen, whose father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra for nearly twenty years, was one of the towering figures of British post-war contemporary music, as a composer and conductor, teacher and artistic director. At the age of fifteen, he conducted the premiere of his own First Symphony with the LSO, when their principal conductor, István Kertész, was indisposed. His father played in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s church parable Curlew River by the English Opera Group directed by Colin Graham, on 13 June 1964 at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford. The young Knussen attended all the rehearsals, receiving encouragement from Britten who commissioned a work from the young composer for the 1969 Aldeburgh festival. He later became the festival’s artistic director from 1983 to 1998. Turnage studied with Knussen when he joined the junior section of the Royal College of Music; he paid warm tribute to his teacher, mentor and friend in conversation with BBC Radio 3’s Sean Rafferty in July 2018.

This musical tribute began with Knussen’s own music: ‘Songs and a Sea Interlude’, which draws episodes from his fantasy opera, Where the Wild Things Are (1979-83), into a seventeen-minute account of the imaginary adventures of Maurice Sendak’s naughty young protagonist, Max. The LSO musicians - string and woodwind players spread across the floor of St Luke’s, horns aloft in the balcony - and Sir Simon Rattle were joined by soprano Lucy Crowe who brilliantly embodied the petulant five-year-old, first cheeky then sombre, cocksure then afraid, reviving memories of her strongly characterised Vixen in the LSO’s semi-staged performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall in June 2019 . Her soprano was unwaveringly clear and pure, and skilfully nuanced as she negotiated the exuberant swoops and cries, and tender pleas and wonderings, with pinpoint accuracy. In scene one, the young lad - who is dressed in a wolf suit and wielding a toy sword - pompously asserted, “I’m Max! M-A-X the wolf”. Bossily, he bullied and beat his toys. Later, hungry and alone, and frightened by his own dream of flying high, he yearned for his mother. “I’ll say, ‘Now stop’, and she’ll catch me,” sang Crowe, with heartfelt pathos and sincerity.

lucy-crowe © Marco Borggreve.jpgLucy Crowe. Photo credit: Marco Borggreve.

The LSO whistled, rustled, flickered, sparkled, gruntled and growled, like the monsters and beasts that young Max encounters on his fantasy escapades, as Rattle carefully and subtly sculpted every one of Knussen’s musical delicacies. In the sea interlude the harp and solo horn conjured the palpable ripples and intangible mysteries of the eerie ocean. Rattle crafted the constantly shifting colours and textures into a mesmerising mosaic: a genuine musical kaleidoscope.

Turnage’s Last Song for Olly is dedicated to the memory of his former teacher, who was affectionately known as ‘Olly’, or ‘Big Owl’, to his friends. It began with an animated dance that wriggled and jived excitedly, seeming to capture the energy, invention, warm generosity and playful humour of Knussen. The sequence of swirling dances, as rich and colourful as his mentor's music - alternated with more sombre chorale-like episodes, poignant, slow-moving chords played by horns and brass being flecked with dashes of colour and light from the woodwind, strings and percussion. The temperature seemed to cool, and the mood darken, when the material passed to muted trombones, whose chords were lightly nudged by grumbling double bass motifs, and high woodwind, floating on a shimmer of vibraphone. But, the dancing sprites gradually edged their way back into the texture, before brassy surges and forthright timpani assertions pushed towards a tutti restatement of the chorale theme. The full and glowing soundscape seemed to embody Knussen’s largesse and greatness, as a musician and man - the man who was lovingly remembered and honoured in Turnage’s concluding elegy, the ‘Song for Olly’, eloquently introduced by the four horns and then shared by all. The bright sheen of the full ensemble - Turnage apparently had to reduce his scoring for this performance, since the LSO were straining the seams of St Luke's - finally faded into quietude, guided on its journey by solo double bass reflections and finally borne aloft by high woodwind.

Explaining how and why the programme had been devised, Rattle commented that in a ‘normal’ concert, one wouldn’t think of ending a concert with an off-stage horn solo, “But, in these times, it seems to tell a different story.” The horn solo which opens Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings did indeed seem to commence a narrative, one played with firm definition and stature by Richard Watkins. ‘Pastoral’ had a tremulous, distant quality. Allan Clayton floated the stanza beginnings, and the tempo was restrained, but the tenor warmly projected Charles Cotton’s strange image, “Molehills seem mountains, and the ant/Appears a monstrous elephant”, triggering lively, light pizzicatos, before the low horn pedal pulled all back into the shadows once more. ‘Nocturne’ had a visceral inner energy which was at times quelled by Clayton’s beautifully hushed head voice, nuanced by a lovely vibrato, and then released in the bloom of the horn’s agile, leaping bugle and the tenor’s surging celebration of the echoes that “roll from soul to soul,/ And grow for ever and for ever.”

The horn’s semitone falls in the ‘Elegy’ sounded even more portentous than usual, and laden with both sadness and anger. In the current political landscape, Blake’s vision of a morally stricken Albion, “O Rose, thou art sick”, felt disconcertingly pertinent. Rattle and Watkins shaped the movement in a way which seemed to compel the listener to search ever deeper within themselves, the horn’s final squirms leaving an uncomfortable echo in the silence. But, Clayton did not let it linger for long, taking up the story in ‘Dirge’. His diction was exemplary, and while the delivery was supremely controlled there was a certain latent wildness, of a ‘Grimesian’ kind, in the upwards, swooping octave leaps and vocal intensity, and in the strings’ precise and pressing counterpoint. Watkins was a skipping, light-footed hunter in ‘Hymn’, enjoying flourishes of high spirits, and Clayton matched him for agility. Keats’ ode to sleep had a rhapsodic freedom and, again, a slightly ‘untamed’ spirit, the dynamics ranging widely and suddenly, the mood fitful and restless. The image of the “curious Conscience, that still lords/ Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole” really did seem to dig down into the bowels of the earth, before Clayton’s plea for the sealing of “the hushèd Casket of my Soul” floated reverentially into infinity, to be answered by the horn’s distant reply - plaintive yet purposeful.

There was a terrific directness about this performance. Some streamed concerts that I have enjoyed in recent months have seemed almost private, chamber performances, the musicians delighted to be able to make music together again but seemingly removed from the listeners at home, and the concert etiquette uncertain in the absence of the immediate embrace of warm applause. Such performances have been no less pleasurable for their slightly ‘enclosed’ camaraderie, but Rattle and the LSO, and both Crowe and Clayton, communicated drama and feeling with real focus, candour and commitment. As they turned to face the camera and bow to their online audience, I hope the LSO musicians were ‘hearing’ our appreciation.

This concert is available to watch live and on demand for 90 days on medici tv , and will also be recorded for future broadcast on Mezzo.

Claire Seymour

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Richard Watkins (horn), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra

Knussen - Songs and a Sea Interlude from Where the Wild Things Are (Overture, Scherzino and Humming Song, Battaglia, Arietta 1, Transformation, Arietta 2, Sea Interlude, Night Song); Mark-Anthony Turnage - Last Song for Olly (world premiere); Britten - Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

Streamed live from LSO St Luke’s, London; Wednesday 9th September 2020.