Mr. Knussen was born in 1952 into a British musical family. His father was principal double bassist of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, and young Knussen was something of a prodigy as both composer and performer, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his first symphony at the age of fifteen. Two additional symphonies followed during the 1970s, along with a sequence of beautiful pieces for smaller ensembles such as Ophelia Dances (1975), and Cantata (1975). Most of the 1980s were occupied by work on a pair of chamber operas, “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop”.
Following the completion of these two operas, Knussen returned to mainly instrumental compositions in the 1990s, often producing works that were small in scale, but not in effect. The results included the Horn Concerto, Songs Without Voices (1992), and the Violin Concerto (2002).
Knussen has taught composition at a number of places, including Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In an interview about 1999, he said:
“One thing I feel very lucky in is that I think my response to music has remained pretty much unchanged since I was a kid. It’s basically what I breathe; I can’t imagine it not being there.”
Like the late pianist Glenn Gould, Oliver Knussen is happiest when talking about recording – “I’m a lot more comfortable in performing in front of an audience than I used to be, but it’s not my home turf; I much prefer the studio, really”
This CD is a collection of Knussen’s compositions that range from a trumpet sonata, works for two pianos, compositions for bassoon and viola, and short orchestral works. All of these have a style that is uniquely Knussen’s: Rhythmic, lighter, featuring special effects, contrasts of winds vs. strings and other attention-grabbing sounds. Examples of some of the CD tracks are:
|1. Very Sharp Trumpet Sonata|
|2. Fifty Fifty, for 2 pianos|
|3. only two notes for olly (the other five for later), for 11 instruments|
|4. Dancing Landscape, for 2 pianos|
|5. Au Quai, for bassoon & viola|
|6. Olly on the Shore, for piano|
|7. Light the First Light of Evening, for orchestra|
Adam Foulds, in a recent article in the Guardian wrote it best when he said:
“He writes his jewel-like scores carefully, with great technical rigour, but there remains at the heart of his music an unanxious playfulness. His works are often set in the childhood worlds of toys and storybooks and in that familiar, phantasmal place between waking and sleeping…”
Knussen said the following about his own work:
“A lot of the stuff I wrote as a kid was in imitation of Britten, and I was very aware of it when I was doing my two operas for Glyndebourne… There are a lot of technical things I learnt from Britten, but that’s just part of one’s musical background, like breathing. I’ve always thought, the more you know, the more you know what sea you’re swimming in…”
Here is Knussen’s “Flourish with Fireworks”