The presence of so many other British composers at Sunday’s 60th birthday tribute to Oliver Knussen was an indication of the esteem and affection in which he is held by his peers, many of whom he has helped as conductor and teacher. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s homage was well deserved and brilliantly executed under Knussen’s baton, but it did not remove questions over his wider reputation. Like Ravel, whose music it sometimes echoes, Knussen’s output is small and perfectly formed. Behind this generality, the BBCSO’s programme fuelled suspicions that he has spent too much creative energy drawing from past models, and that the emphases of his music – craftsmanlike polish, consonant sonority, neatly camouflaged structural orthodoxy – now come across as old-fashioned. None of Knussen’s successors, for example, would dream of labelling a work with the word “symphony”, as he has done.
On their own terms, Two Organa and the Horn Concerto (Martin Owen, flawless) seduced the ear with the siren sounds of Knussen’s orchestral palette. But heard together like this, the family resemblance was a little too obvious – as if his ambitions and motivations as a composer had somewhere ground to a halt. There is also the question of scale. Why is it that Knussen’s ideas never develop a more extended life? While recognising that he doesn’t waste a note or outstay his welcome, it seems a pity that he remains wedded to the miniature.
His finesse was exemplified by the Requiem – Songs for Sue, in a performance dedicated to the memory of Hans Werner Henze and radiantly sung by Claire Booth. She gave an equally translucent account of the Whitman Settings, which sounded far more palatable in this sumptuous orchestral version than in the original for voice and piano.
The most challenging music was confined to the instrumental pieces heard in an early evening recital at the Guildhall School – notably Autumnal for violin and piano (Alexandra Wood and Huw Watkins) and Variations for piano (Ryan Wigglesworth), both of which came across as a little too sophisticated for their own good. Knussen’s music compels admiration, not love.