I was introduced to Oliver Knussen’s music as a young student. Playing unusual, less familiar repertoire was always an interesting discovery. I’ve written about Contemporary piano music before and you can read my post here.
Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow in 1952. His father was the principal double bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his debut in April 1968 conducting his First Symphony in London and then at Carnegie Hall, New York. Early major works such as Coursing (1979) and the Third Symphony (1973-9) placed Knussen at the forefront of contemporary British music where he has firmly remained. A skilled conductor of new music as well as a composer, he is a highly influential figure who has been awarded many accolades including a CBE in 1994.
Knussen’s music has often has often been described as on a ‘small scale’ with a certain transparency of texture. This is definitely the case with the piano piece, Sonya’s Lullaby Op.16. Composed in 1977/78 for his daughter Sonya, who is now a mezzo soprano. Apparently as a four month old baby she was an insomniac (aren’t they all?!) and he decided to record her sleeplessness by creating a lullaby which employs a vivid yet lucid sound world. Knussen’s programme notes enlighten this piece;
‘The word lullaby is used in the sense of an incantation to sleep. Formally the music is, I hope, self-explanatory, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that an initial stimulus toward the piano writing was the harmonic exploitation of overtones produced from the lowest register of the instrument by composers as diverse as Brahms, Scriabin, Copland, and Carter. Sonya’s Lullaby is the central panel of my chamber music Triptych (the other two being Autumnal for violin and piano, and Cantata for oboe and string trio) and was written for the composer-pianist Michael Finnissy, who gave the first performance of the final version in Amsterdam, January 1979’.
The reference to Scriabin is interesting, because this does feel the dominant influence. The work is full of unresolved dissonances and colourful chord progressions which somehow create complete calm amid chaos, perhaps due partly to the constant tri-tone reference, suggesting the child’s inner turmoil. Pedal is a really important sonority in this work too, acting as a vital part of the texture.
The following performance was recorded in 1998 at a house concert where I played a short recital on a 1924 Bechstein Boudoir grand. I have made several recordings of this work on various fairly new Steinway pianos, but somehow, even though I’m not keen on old instruments at all, this piano did allow for a different sound world.