Knussen: Songs without Voices; Whitman Settings; Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh; Océan de terre; Sonya’s Lullaby

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COMPOSERS: Knussen
LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: Songs without Voices; Whitman Settings; Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh; Océan de terre; Sonya’s Lullaby
PERFORMER: Lisa Saffer (soprano), Lucy Shelton (soprano), Peter Serkin (piano); Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center/Oliver Knussen
CATALOGUE NO: VC 7 59308 2 DDD
Uncompromisingly contemporary, the music of Oliver Knussen, though complex and challenging, is far from inaccessible. The seven chamber works on this retrospective disc span 20 years. The earliest is the eerie but powerfully atmospheric Océan de terre. Written in 1973, it is a three-movement setting for soprano (the excellent Lucy Shelton) and chamber orchestra of Apollinaire’s surreal poem. The most recent is Songs without Voices (1992), four short pieces for an ensemble of wind and strings. Three of the four are based, syllable by syllable, on unnamed poems, but without the involvement of text or voice. In the remaining piece a melody for cor anglais plays the part of the singer.

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The music in Knussen’s songs reflects the sounds and rhythms of the words, rather than their narrative meaning. In Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh (1983), which despite its title is not a piece for children, AA Milne’s texts are sung but are, intentionally, only sometimes discernible. Instead, they are used as a fantastical springboard from which to create an enchanted, rural idyll, that is reminiscent, with its shimmering portamenti strings, fluttering woodwind arpeggios and precise percussion, of that conjured by Britten in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cycle is engagingly sung by Lisa Saffer, whose flawless soprano scales incredible heights in the vocalise ‘Climbing the Tree’. Claire Wrathall