The movement titles of Oliver Knussen's Violin Concerto look back past Beethoven to Baroque models - or, bouncing back again, Baroque models as reimagined by Debussy or Ravel. "It is quite unnerving to try to usefully characterize for others something which is still being composed at the time of writing," Knussen wrote in a program note before the premiere. "Nevertheless one possible clue to the nature of the piece is that I was tempted... to write 'in three scenes,' and to mention that despite the classical associations with the movement titles, the expressive world is sometimes wildly at odds with expectations thus suggested, or so it seems to me. At times the violinist resembles a tightrope walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece."
Those sounds are bells with the violin floating high above, framing three linked movements very much in the character and fast-slow-fast pattern of classical concerto traditions. The solo part in the Recitative is filled with Baroque rhetorical devices. It wanders an eerie sound world of luminous, striking orchestration, like a time-traveller in a brave new world. The rhetoric expands into broader, handsomely supported lines in the Aria section, with the violin starting in husky depths. The violin's questing lyrical flights, up and up, do find points of real repose in persuasive harmonic contexts, including a final perch on that high wire before diving into the athletic Gigue. Like its antique namesakes, this Gigue is firmly rooted in a dancing triple meter, though frequently tripped up with cross rhythms, as in Beethoven's scherzos. This is a relentlessly driven sort of dance, like some of Prokofiev's wild rides, inspired, Knussen says, by a film of a vaudeville clown playing "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Knussen's Violin Concerto was premiered by Pinchas Zukerman in May 2002, with the composer conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.