New works by Oliver Knussen appear far less often than his admirers would like, with each meticulously created statement the hard-won prize of a ceaseless creative perfectionism. Knussen’s much anticipated O Hototogisu! premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in June and subsequently broadcast on Radio 3, with the composer himself conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Conceived as a kind of double concerto for soprano Claire Booth and flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, and dedicated to the outgoing heads of BCMG, Stephen and Jackie Newbould, the 8-minute work couches seven exquisite haiku settings in richly evocative music for flute and ensemble of 22 players.
This ‘fragment of a Japonisme’ is part of a larger work in progress concerning the Hototogisu (or Lesser Cuckoo), a bird widely invoked in poetry of the 17th-19th centuries as both a harbinger of Summer and a voice from the land of the dead.
Looking ahead, Knussen and the BCMG will give the work’s London premiere on 16 September as part of the Barbican’s 10-day festival ‘This is Rattle’.
A birdsong-like flute solo, festooned with grace notes, frames and punctuates the tiny songs themselves, with their elaborately soaring vocal lines, while the ensemble is used with microscopic precision to apply touches of colour that sometimes evoke Japanese kabuki without ever seeming lazily anecdotal.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 26 June 2017
‘The intricately scored suite is a tight, expressive showcase for soprano and flautist: the vocal part yearning and supplicatory, the instrument brittle and beaky.’
The Times (Neil Fisher), 26 June 2017