BBC SSO / Ilan Volkov – Miller, Sciarrino, Croft & Beethoven ‘Eroica’

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Juliet Fraser (soprano), Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Sheppard, sound design), BBC Scottish Symphony OrchestraIlan Volkov (above, picture James Mollison)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Friday 17 November 2017

Miller Round (2016)

Sciarrino Allegoria della notte (1985)

Croft Lost Songs (2017) [World premiere]

Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, ‘Eroica’ (1804)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Symphony Hall concert was hardly likely to muster a large audience, though those braving inclement weather and the chaos of redevelopment in the Centenary Square environs were rewarded with this strikingly contrasted programme from the BBC Scottish Symphony.

The first half consisted wholly of music by living composers. Canadian-born Cassandra Miller (b1976) may not yet be widely recognized in the UK, but Round demonstrated a sure feeling for orchestral sonority – drawing on a lesser known Tchaikovsky melody (rendered by cellist Gaspar Cassadó) as a ‘cantus firmus’ around which the texture gradually opens-out; taking in antiphonal trumpets and off-stage tubular bells, while maintaining its hushed aura through to the rapturous culmination. Ilan Volkov secured a committed response in this absorbing piece.

Such was no less true in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Allegoria della notte, yet the work itself was a disappointment. Sciarrino (b1947) has a knack for finding the ‘biting point’ between sardonic and ominous, but this homage to and deconstruction of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (near-quotations from which inform the opening and close) was for the most part an exercise in his trademark glassy textures and frozen gestures. Ilya Gringolts handled some stratospheric solo writing with aplomb, but this remained music appreciably longer on technique than substance.

A pity that the orchestra’s absence from the next piece prompted an exodus from the hall in expectation of an interval (though the programme could have been clearer on this), as many failed to return for the highlight of this contemporary triptych. New Zealand-born John Croft (b1971) is a further composer gaining in profile, and Lost Songs should do his reputation no harm at all. These settings of ancient Greek poets (three by Sappho, two by Alcaeus and one anonymous) for solo voice conjured a remote though never arid or uninvolving sound-world, enhanced by the evocation of lyres and reed instruments through the adept manipulation of live electronics – against which Juliet Fraser was a focal-point of eloquent poise. If any ‘note of reconciliation’ rather failed to emerge, this remained an assured and involving experience.

Was a point being made by the introspection of this first half when compared to the combative presence of Beethoven’s Eroica after the interval? Such thoughts came readily to mind during Volkov’s impressive account of a work as wears its two centuries and more lightly, not least in an opening Allegro (exposition repeat excluded) that unfolded intently yet never hectically via a far-reaching development and on to a coda that brought tangible fulfilment. The Adagio then marshalled its funereal essence with equal purpose, building to an anguished fugato and finally subsiding into a numbed acceptance – countered in the scherzo with its incisive energy and its trio’s horn-led jollity. The finale’s initial stages were ideally paced, and if the broader tempo of what ensued risked momentum, the coda duly surged forth with uninhibited resolve.

Overall, a fine showing for Volkov and BBCSSO alike. Were they to give a first UK hearing for Jorge E. López’s seismic Fourth Symphony (as premiered by Volkov in Luxembourg late last year), this would be worth braving the elements and urban redevelopment alike to attend.

For more information on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, head to their website, and for Ilan Volkov, his artist website

BBC Proms 2017 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard: Mahler & Schubert ‘Unfinished’

Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (above)

Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Mahler Symphony No. 10 in F sharp, realized Deryck Cooke (1910; 1959-76)

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 12 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Having made an auspicious start to his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard tonight brought the orchestra to the BBC Proms for its most ambitious concert this season – Mahler’s I, given in the ‘performing edition’ by Deryck Cooke.

Left unfinished at Mahler’s death in 1911, the work was partially premiered in 1924 though it was not for another four decades that a complete rendering was heard – Berthold Goldschmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in Cooke’s realization. Since when his (subsequently revised) edition has become the preferred option for those tackling Mahler’s last symphony in its entirety. Dausgaard recently won praise for his recording with the Seattle Symphony, and his account this evening proved no less successful as an overall interpretation.

Other than the notably deliberate tempo for the violas’ initial theme, such as made it almost an epigraph to the movement overall, the opening Adagio was flexibly paced; the wrenching theme heard on massed strings finding contrast with the sardonic, waltz-like music as passed between solo woodwind. The development’s polyphonic intricacy was eventfully unfolded, then the climactic dissonance – with its piercing trumpet note – was pointedly drawn into the whole so that the lingering coda evinced a serenity whose fulfilment was at best provisional.

The first Scherzo emerged even more impressively. Texturally the least cohesive movement as Mahler left it, its contrapuntal density allied to elliptical harmonic progressions make it the most radical (the earlier music of Hindemith and Weill tangibly within reach) and Dausgaard expertly integrated its increasingly close-knit sections into a stretto of mounting excitement. The brief, fulcrum-like Purgatorio which follows was a little matter-of-fact for its glancing irony wholly to come through, and Dausgaard ought to have made an attacca into the second Scherzo (the three movements of this second part ideally form a continuous whole). Not that there was much to fault in this latter as it pivoted between anguish and appeasement, before vanishing into that ‘tunnel’ of darkness whose nihilistic overtones were palpably to the fore.

Come the Finale and Dausgaard might ideally have deleted the opening drum stroke, while the climax of the central Allegro really needed underpinning from drums for its intensified reprise of the first movement’s dissonance to make its fullest impact. But these were minor flaws in a perceptive rendering overall – sepulchral opening brass making way for the most eloquent flute melody in the symphonic literature (not least as played by Charlotte Ashton), transformed into a radiant string threnody which brings about this work’s cathartic ending.

An impressive reading was fittingly programmed within the context of Schubert’s Unfinished, of which Dausgaard has made a fine account with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. While his rapid take on the first movement (little ‘moderato’ about this Allegro) did not transfer ideally onto full orchestra (at least in the resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic), the ensuing Andante had no lack of poise: the hushed dynamics of its coda no less arresting than the blissful final cadence in which Mahler’s transcendent leave-taking, 88 years on, was not hard to perceive.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl)

You can listen to Dausgaard’s recordings of these pieces on the Spotify playlist below:

BBC Proms 2017 – John Wilson conducts Holst’s The Planets & Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony

CBSO Youth Chorus (female voices), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson (above)

Vaughan Williams Symphony No.9 in E minor (1957)

Holst The Planets, Op.32 (1917)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Firmly established at the Proms during this past decade through his high-profile musical and film programmes, John Wilson has enjoyed relatively little exposure in terms of the classical repertoire for which he evidently feels great affinity. His recent appointment as the Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra should hopefully rectify this, and this early-evening concert cannily juxtaposed what has long been regarded as Vaughan Williams’s most recalcitrant (and underrated) symphony with what will always be Holst’s most popular work.

As dense in texture as it is ambiguous in content, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony has enjoyed limited advocacy (it went un-played at these concerts for almost three decades after 1960), though it has latterly enjoyed something of a return to favour and one anticipated that Wilson would have its measure. What resulted was something of a curate’s egg in terms of interpretation, not least in an opening movement whose Moderato maestoso marking was scarcely evident – Wilson favouring a fluid approach as emphasized this music’s ominous import while leaving the (often shaky) orchestral ensemble to fend for itself. Better in this respect was the second movement, its sombre and Hardy-inspired imagery made tangible through haunting flugelhorn solos and the baleful music that intervenes at crucial moments.

Neither was the militaristic scherzo wanting in impetus, though here Wilson’s preference for deftly sprung rhythms and relatively transparent textures served to rob this music of its sheer malevolence. Much the hardest movement to bring off, the lengthy finale emerged surely and methodically – its polyphonic weave rendered with a clarity that not even the expanse of the Albert Hall acoustic could deny – to an apotheosis more telling for its tangible equivocation. Whether those blazing E major chords convey affirmation or resignation is open to question.

The Planets has, of course, never looked back over the near-century since it first astounded a public confronted with the terrors of mechanized war. Perhaps one should not be surprised that Wilson was at pains to play down its cinematic quality (hardly something of which Holst could have been aware in any case) – his vehement take on Mars proceeding an eloquent if slightly cloying Venus; itself followed by an almost dance-like Mercury and an incisive Jupiter at its best in a trio section that managed to eschew almost all trace of false solemnity

By contrast, Saturn succeeded better in its listless opening and radiant closing sections than in the anguished music at its centre; Wilson’s preference for measured tempi continuing into an unusually steady Uranus marked by deadpan humour and the spectacularly OTT organ glissando at its climax. The enigmatic Neptune was almost as successful, its disembodied textures securely rendered by the BBCSSO, though a lack of integration with the wordless voices in its latter stages meant that the close felt less ‘other-worldly’ than it needed to be.

Overall, a promising showing for what ought to develop into a productive and worthwhile association. Wilson palpably has much to contribute in this repertoire, and what technical flaws there were only intermittently undercut the qualities of these probing performances.

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

BBC Proms 2016 – Pekka Suusisto, Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto High Res 6 - credit Maija Tammi

Pekka Kuusisto (c) Maija Tammi

Prom 27; Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2016

You can watch this Prom from its BBC broadcast – the Grime and Tchaikovsky here and the Stravinsky here

For sheer musical enjoyment this Prom took some beating.

Right from the start it was clear the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were at the Royal Albert Hall to enjoy their Friday night, and in Pekka Kuusisto they had a more than willing accomplice.

It was Kuusisto’s first appearance at the festival, and as he arrived onstage he gazed in wonder at the full hall, taking in its scope and bidding a cheery ‘hello’ to the front ranks of the Prommers. At that moment you sensed his performance, even before he played a note, had gone up a gear.

Sure enough, his performance of Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto was dazzling, but he was careful not to let technical feats overshadow the core of the music’s emotion. As the longer first movement unfolded so did the ardent, lyrical phrases, until we reached the solo cadenza, where just a flick of the eyes and arms were enough to get the audience laughing. Kuusisto plays a lot of his music as though for the first time, the childlike innocence (not to mention his boyish face!) a combination of pure enjoyment. The audience, wrapped up in the occasion, applauded as though he had finished, fully aware there were two more movements to come.

These were the doleful Canzonetta, reminding us of the serious circumstances in which the piece was composed (Tchaikovsky’s disastrous and shortlived marriage, made in spite of his convictions around his homosexual orientation) and a finale that brushed all that aside, its main tune from the violin scampering all over the orchestra as they tried to keep up.

Both violinist and orchestra rightly received a rapturous ovation, but Kuusisto was not done, returning for a traditional Finnish song. Following Sol Gabetta’s lead from the First Night he did the singing, while BBC SSO leader Laura Samuel gamely added a rustic accompaniment. Even the audience were involved, singing one of the phrases as Kuusisto brought the house down.

Even after that the enjoyment was yet to peak, for Thomas Dausgaard – who had shaped Tchaikovksy’s phrases rather beautifully – led them in a vibrant account of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The composer’s second ballet is perhaps his most tuneful, full of Russian folk song references as it tells the tale of the ultimately doomed puppet. The colours of this performance were given by the BBC SSO at their very best, with superb contributions from Mark O’Keeffe and Eric Dunlea (trumpets), a beautiful, child-like solo from flautist Charlotte Ashton, and wonderful contributions from solo woodwind, brass and percussion alike – not to mention the brilliant efforts of pianist Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch on celesta.

Dausgaard was enjoying himself, and although on occasion the music was a little fast it was never less than energetic, the players relishing the shades of colour in The Shrovetide Fair, and the irresistible hooks and dance rhythms Stravinsky threads through the music.

Dausgaard is due to take over full time as chief conductor of the orchestra in the autumn, and on this evidence the two look set for a fruitful musical relationship.

eardleyCatterline in Winter (c) The estate of Joan Eardley.

Beginning the concert was the first part of Helen Grime’s Two Eardley Pictures, a new piece commissioned by the BBC and with its second part today. This one, Catterline in Winter, portrayed the fishing village of the North of Scotland, capturing it in steely, metallic colours – reflecting the dark grey sky and the icy blasts of a seemingly ever present wind. It is always difficult to appraise a new piece on first hearing, but this was an impressive and brightly lit score that is well worth hearing for a second time – preferably in the company of the second, Snow.

Ben Hogwood

In concert – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: Koechlin’s Seven Stars Symphony

ilan-volkov-2Kari Kriiku (clarinet), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov, live from City Halls, Glasgow, Thursday 14 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

Dukas – L’apprenti sorcier (1896-7) (11 minutes)

Unsuk Chin – Clarinet Concerto (2014) (24 minutes)

Koechlin – Seven Stars Symphony (1933) (46 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2667

About the music

koechlin

Anyone who has seen the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow knows how valuable they are to the community, not just in Glasgow but Scotland too. City Halls, the impressive building that has been their home for the last ten years, is the perfect venue for them. In that time they have explored an impressive range of repertoire with principal conductor Ilan Volkov, who has become a versatile conductor capable of turning his hand to any music from the last five centuries.

A typically inventive program here includes a rare performance of the Seven Stars Symphony by Charles Koechlin (above). Long before the likes of Heat magazine fuelled celebrity culture, Koechlin was a star-struck fan in awe of the Hollywood actors and actresses of the day, especially Lilian Harvey, subject of the second movement, who became his muse. Volkov includes this piece as an example of 1930s that is not often heard, with most programmers opting for the ubiquitous works of the period by Schoenberg, Shostakovich and early-period Stravinsky.

Before that we hear a classical music favourite, Dukas‘ L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), surely one of the biggest influences on Walt Disney – appearing in the Fantasia film. This is followed by the Clarinet Concerto from Unsuk Chin, the South Korean composer’s sixth work in a form that suits her style.

What should I listen out for?

Dukas L’apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)

2:06 – an enchanted introduction, the clarinet spelling out what the profile of the main theme will sound like. The spell has been cast. The orchestral colouring is vivid but then the music stops – awaiting the bassoon’s big moment at 4:26 with the tune we all know and love. The orchestra develop and play around with this until we hear it again in full technicolour at 6:00.

Throughout the piece has a macabre element and this comes to the fore at 9:07 where we hear the creaking sound of the contrabassoon right at its lower end. Gradually the tune comes out again and the full orchestra play it at …with glittering touches applied to the top end with woodwind and piccolo.

Then the door seemingly slams shut, and at 12:10 we hear the enchanted music of the start again – before a sudden end at 13:00.

Unsuk Chin – Clarinet Concerto

16:30 – we hear the clarinet straight away, with its sonorous low end sounding almost like a bird – a swan maybe, ducking and diving over the orchestra like a bird with a big bill. The influence of Messiaen is clear in some of this writing.The brass are prominent with rich accompaniment, and then the strings are heard, shimmering in accompaniment to the clarinet’s playful notes. There uis a build-up and then the orchestra scatter at 22’53”, and the music is much more agitated. Then at 24’20” the music takes a thoughtful angle, the clarinet with

26:07 – the second movement begins with the clarinet playing multiphonics – as in two notes at once – which is a very difficult skill for the clarinettist! He does so very quietly and alone, and is gradually joined by members of the orchestra. The sound is akin to bottles in the wind, and is quite spooky. Then from 29’18” the clarinet returns to the top of the picture, but with some incredibly difficult passagework exploiting its whole range.

The music subsides but then gradually builds again – before the quiet multiphonics make a brief reappearance.

35:26 – the whirring of the percussion inspires the clarinet to a playful approach. Chin uses much more of the orchestra this time, and we hear the bass end in its fullest voice yet. The two forces then play off each other, the clarinet with short squeaks and pips to the end.

Koechlin – Seven Stars Symphony

You can listen to a BBC feature on the Seven Stars Symphony here

1:04:40 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. – Immediately we get a taste of Koechlin’s rich orchestral palette through exotic solos for clarinet and violin. A rich harmonic backdrop creates a sultry atmosphere, while also suggesting a night time portrait. Flutes, clarinets, bassoon and oboe are all prominent over soft strings, painting pictures in the manner of an early detective soundtrack – far ahead of its time, given this piece was written in 1933!

1:11:43 – Lilian Harvey – a brief but affectionate portrait of Koechlin’s muse / obsession, assigned initially to the oboe but with high violins taking much of the melodic material.

1:14:27 – Greta Garbo – now we hear the weird but wonderful tones of the electronic ondes martenot, a similar instrument to the theremin. It begins the portrait of Greta Garbo with a highly chromatic melody, and Koechlin is to use the orchestra sparingly, creating an exotic atmosphere.

1:18:42 – Clara Bow Et La Joyeuse California – a lively dance led by high violins, countered by a wary sequence. Koechlin uses a wide range of orchestral colour in this movement. At 1:23:08 we hear a saxophone solo before the orchestral gathers for a big, exaggerated Hollywood finish.

1:25:31 – Marlene Dietrich – a soft clarinet solo cuts to an affectionate passage accompanied by softly rippling piano and harp. This slow movement is richly scored, and takes the profile of a declaration of love, settled by an affectionate viola solo at the end.

1:30:55 – Emil Jannings – more exotic scoring from Koechlin at the start of this movement, as the strings come surging through, before a quieter but no less atmospheric passage of play from the woodwind. The portrait ends with a warm string sound.

1:35:15 – Charlie Chaplin – Koechlin’s final portrait is also the most substantial, and could stand as a piece on its own. A luxurious violin solo is then interrupted by a lively sequence suggesting one of Chaplin’s fast moving black and white films – very expressive! Chaplin then becomes furtive, seemingly peering round corners in a slow section. Again Koechlin uses the whole orchestra in a rich variety of colours and moods, right from double basses and piano at the lower end to sparkling woodwind and brass at the top.

Even the harpsichord makes an appearance at 1:44:37. After this the orchestra begin to suggest a slow Habanera dance – but after hinting at a fast section indulges in a serene passage led by the strings – before a softly voiced march takes the music off into the distance – from which point sumptuous strings lead us home to a grand finish.