Cleveland Pictures is by far the most significant of Olly Knussen’s unfinished works, and if it had reached completion would have been his largest scale orchestral piece. Commissioned in 1999 by the Cleveland Orchestra, the bulk of the work was composed in 2003 and scheduled for performance in 2004. But it wasn’t finished in time, and further attempts at programming it in 2005 and 2009 fell through. Meanwhile Michael Tilson Thomas gave Olly the opportunity to read through the incomplete work with the New World Symphony in Miami in 2008.
In spite of this successful reading, he remained dissatisfied with the music, and couldn’t be persuaded to revisit it or to explain what he felt was wrong with it. Had he lived he would surely have returned to this music, which is far too important to remain hidden. The Cleveland Orchestra graciously allowed the Aldeburgh Festival to give the first performance in honour of what would have been his 70th birthday, in advance of the US première.
All seven movements depict works from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. They are:
- Portail avec Penseur (Façades and Lake with Rodin)
- Calabazas (Velasquez)
- Dans les vagues (Gaugin) [Fragment]
- Two Clocks (Tiffany and Fabergé)
- St Ambrose (Goya)
- Don Quixote (André Masson) [Sketches only]
- The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (Turner) [Fragment]
Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 are complete, and their glittering textures would surely have been little changed. Nos 3 and 7 are substantial, fully orchestrated fragments (both of them were read through in 2008), but there are only initial sketches for no. 6, which cannot be played. Each movement is dedicated to a colleague, and I’m the proud dedicatee of No. 4.
There could be no question of anyone attempting to ‘complete’ Cleveland Pictures. But even in its unfinished state this is music of great substance and beauty, and the two performances (given either side of the interval) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth were a revelation.