Album Review: Douglas Knehans’ Unfinished Earth and flute concerto ‘Tempest’

Two new works from Australian composer Douglas Knehans are released this week on Ablaze Records, one featuring the LSO’s principal flute Gareth Davies in a recording of Tempest – a concerto for flute and orchestra.

Both works are a fun descriptive listen, although it’s the symphony on the album – Unfinished Earth – which has the slight edge for me.

Knehans writing in the first movement of Tempest is rhythmic, angular, and evocative. He uses simple recognisable musical motifs and treats them in a rich variety of ways to create musical depictions of ‘rough wind’. This makes for an immediately accessible and fulfilling experience. A more sombre, reflective air follows in the second movement, during which a comparatively fragile musical idea consisting of long-sustained melodies creates something rather beautiful, even though there are moments when it feels as though the movement has lost a little focus.

The relentless driving rhythms of the third movement remind me of early Benjamin Britten and Edward Gregson. The repetition of the originating movement's musical motif does begin to grate a little from a listening perspective, but this is more than made up for by the fierceness of the writing, and the demands made on the soloist. Gareth Davies makes easy work of this highly virtuosic work. Still, a hint of a soloist being punished in the music gives the finished product added drama.

The three-movement symphony that follows on the album – Unfinished Earth – is a more enticing proposition, successfully holding my attention throughout in a way that the concerto struggled in places. The majestic opening to the first movement is packed full of dramatic textural and dynamic contrasts, concluding with the feel of a self-contained concert overture.

The second movement reaches a glorious climax with some interesting woodwind textures and unexpectedly gorgeous chords during the concluding section. The final movement has hints of Aaron Copland in its pastoral sections. At its heart is a simple musical idea scored with terrifying impact.

Both works are an entertaining listen, and assuming the standard of the musicians is high enough, would make a hugely engaging and rewarding youth orchestra project.

Douglas Knehans' Tempest is performed by Gareth Davies and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Mikel Toms. Knehans'  Unfinished Earth also features on the album released on 6 April. 

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