Proms 2012: Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

Partway through last Saturday’s Proms world première of Night Songs, the new work from Helen Grime, conductor Oliver Knussen dropped his glasses. To listen to the performance, one would hardly have noticed; yet, at the end, Knussen announced the mishap to the audience and remarked how he thought it had gone well, “but I’d just like to play it again to make sure”—and thus, Night Songs was immediately given a second world première. Quite apart from the graciousness of that act, it makes one wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often anyway; on the very rare occasions when i’ve been at a concert where a new work has been played twice (usually in each half of the concert, not immediately afterwards), it has always proved to be an extremely valuable experience, benefiting the piece immeasurably and sometimes drastically altering one’s first impressions. Concert planners: take note.

Not that one needs to hear Night Songs twice to appreciate how fascinating it is. Composed to mark Knussen’s 60th birthday, Night Songs is inspired by a work of the same name by the late artist Joseph Cornell, one of his well-known assemblages. Things felt perilous near the start, however, where the oboe- and trumpet-guided introduction led to a frantic, hopping texture that would not be out of place in one of Knussen’s own compositions (it brings to mind the first of his Whitman Settings, another nocturnal piece); for just a moment, Grime’s act of homage seems as though it might tip over into quasi-quotation. But Night Songs quickly pulls away, venturing instead through an episode of melodic searching before entering into genuinely nebulous territory. Only briefly, though; once again the piece moves on, Grime creating an interesting sense of momentum but not through blatantly rapid material, as though something deeper (unheard?) were impelling the orchestral movement. As it progresses, Night Songs grows in density and darkness, some flute flurries marking the end of the presence of high registers in the piece. Solitary bass notes begin the descent in the work’s final passage, increasingly solemn and pensive; a final bit of melodic moving around swiftly disappears, and everything becomes slow and mysterious, seemingly poised, where it ends.

There’s not a huge amount of difference between the two performances, some moments feel ‘cleaner’ on the first take, while the dissolution into darkness comes across stronger the second time around. Regardless, it’s a rare treat to have two world premières of a work so filled with invention.

Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

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Helen Grime – Night Songs
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