Ever since he took over as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle has made a point of beginning each new season at the Barbican with a programme of British music. The LSO’s 2020/21 season had been due to launch with the first performance of a commission from Mark-Anthony Turnage as its centrepiece. Instead, Turnage’s new piece, with its original scoring scaled down for a smaller socially distanced band, featured in the first of a series of concerts that the orchestra is performing to a small socially distanced audience and streaming from LSO St Luke’s this autumn.
Last Song for Olly is Turnage’s homage to his teacher, mentor and friend Oliver Knussen, who died suddenly in 2018, and whose loss is still keenly felt in British music. Turnage’s touching memorial is a 20-minute orchestral piece, which switches between pawky, lurching dance music and passages of intense, elegiac remembrance, which become more profound and harmonically rich as they go on, while the ending brings another tribute, with a brief double-bass solo that’s a reminder Knussen’s father, Stuart, was the LSO’s principal double bass and chairman in the 1960s.
One of Knussen’s most magical works began the concert – Songs and a Sea Interlude, a suite he extracted from his first opera, Where the Wild Things Are. Lucy Crowe was the soprano soloist, effortlessly floating the settings of Maurice Sendak’s words over Knussen’s kaleidoscopic textures as they were teased out lovingly by Rattle and the orchestra. As the conductor observed in a brief interview, it’s music without any wasted notes.
There was also music by Benjamin Britten, an influence on Knussen and more obviously on Turnage, too. The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings seems to be everywhere at the moment, but few performances are likely to be better than this one, with Allan Clayton savouring every word and colouring every phrase perfectly, and Michael Thompson delivering the horn solos immaculately. A beautifully conceived and executed programme.
• Available to watch on Medici.tv (subscription) for 30 days. Our critic watched this concert online.