Wednesday 19 January 2022

Beauty and bleakness: Douglas Knehans' Cloud Ossuary from Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and Mikel Toms

Douglas Knehans Mist Wave, Cloud Ossuary; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Mikel Toms, Pavel Wallinger, Judith Weusten; Ablaze Records

Douglas Knehans Mist Wave, Cloud Ossuary; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Mikel Toms, Pavel Wallinger, Judith Weusten; Ablaze Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 January 2022 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A requiem for our times, Katharina Knehans bleak poetry in an intense new setting by her Australian/American composer father

This new disc from Ablaze Records features two works by the Australian/American composer Douglas Knehans, Mist Waves for solo violin and strings, and Cloud Ossuary: Symphony No. 4, recorded by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Mikel Toms, with Pavel Wallinger, violin, and Judith Weusten, soprano.

Mist Waves was originally written for violin and piano, and premiered in that form by violinist Madeleine Mitchell and pianist Michael Delfin. This version for violin and strings was created for the recording and for Pavel Wallinger (who is concert-master of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra). Knehans describes it as a 'loose chaconne' and the first eight bars form the basis for the whole work. The result is slow and thoughtful, with Wallinger's rather aetherial violin hovering over the darker, lower textures of the strings. The way Knehans repeats his material, but never the same each time, gives the work a contemplative, timeless quality. He describes the work as being about land-based clouds, but rather than being purely descriptive, the piece is much more metaphorical.

Cloud Ossuary began as a setting of a poem by Knehans' daughter, Katarina Knehans. The setting of the poem, Bones and All, forms the final movement of the symphony with the other two movements created subsequently. All three movements, The Ossein Cage, Breathe Cloud and Bones and All are based on the same material though with very different results. 

The Ossein Cage begins with just the distant clicking of percussion, the rhythmic pulse then joined by quietly intense strings, there is a sense of constrained anticipation, 'something's coming'. Knehans describes the movement as being about seeking escape from an imagined cage of dead bone, and the music builds in an unrelenting way, gradually becoming more intense and more rhythmic, more constrained if you like. It builds to an intense climax, featuring a lot of percussion, but this does not hold and the movement slowly unwinds. The second movement seems to return us to the cloudy, aetherial world of Mist Waves, yet without the sense of structure of that piece so the opening is high, free and fluid in form. Textures become richer, darker but always fluid with that sense of free-floating as details emerge from the mist, and disappear again, but gradually the movement solidifies and builds, leading inevitably to the final movement. By far the longest movement of the three, Bones and All is the point to which the other two movements have been leading. Katarina Knehan's poem is darkly evocative, it opens:

    I tend to the land grief
    It started as barren and broken waste,
    So I watered it.

The vocal line has quite an instrumental feel about it, wandering and intense, over rather concentrated, dark, orchestral lines which create a close-weaved texture. The vocal writing is often high and challenging and the words simply fail to come over, you have to listen to this with the text in hand to catch any of the way Knehans hands his daughter's words. The overall structure is arch shaped, and you sense the way Knehans builds and propels his structure towards a climax. The focus is on the expressive beauty of the vocal line, but the orchestral underpinning feels as if there is a clear sense of structure and focus. 

Weusten does wonders with the challenging vocal writing and Knehans' apparently instrumental approach to the voice, though there are moments which feel almost uncomfortably intense and on edge. But the the rather bleak poem is hardly comfortable material. I have to confess that I did wonder whether we needed a soprano voice at all. Given that Knehans' approach to writing the setting seemed to be intended to evoke emotions, rather than project words, perhaps a solo instrument might have worked better. What he does do is catch the atmosphere and the bleak intensity of the words, creating something of a requiem for our times and the state of our planet.

Cloud Ossuary is a striking and fascinating work, full of gorgeous textures and colours, yet throughout it is clear that Knehans brings a strong structural underpinning to the beauty, making for a satisfying symphonic work.

Knehans training was divided between Australia and America. His undergraduate study at the Australian National University focused primarily on European music. His subsequent studies in America at Queens College focused on American music, though as he studied with Thea Musgrave this period also underscored his European roots, and then he subsequently studied at Yale with Pulitzer prize winning composer Jacob Druckman. Having worked at the University of Alabama in the USA and the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music in Australia, he is currently professor at College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati in the USA.

Douglas Knehans created Ablaze Records in 2008 and the company specialises in music by living composers, with regular calls for music and scores. The Donemus publishing website features PDFs of the scores of Mist Waves and Cloud Ossuary.

Douglas Knehans (born 1957) - Mist Waves (2019) [7:41]
Douglas Knehans - Cloud Ossuary: Symphony No. 4 (2019) [47.39]

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