Live review – CBSO & Ilan Volkov: Mahler Symphony no.9, Krása & Klein

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 April 2019

Krása Overture for small orchestra (1944)
Klein arr. Saudek Partita for strings (1944)
Mahler Symphony no.9 (1909)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Ilan Volkov (c) Astrid Ackermann

Pursuing one of the more eventful conducting careers of his generation, Ilan Volkov returned to Birmingham for this pertinent juxtaposition of music by composers who numbered among countless Nazi atrocities next to what is arguably Mahler’s greatest symphonic achievement.

Mahler has long been central Volkov’s programming (performances of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies when principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra resonate in the memory), and this evening’s account of the Symphony no.9 exuded conviction borne of long familiarity.

Even now, it is uncommon to hear a reading of the expansive first movement which unfolded with such unforced inevitability; those extremes of anguish and introspection finding seamless accord within the composer’s most elaborate formal design. Nor was there any lack of contrast with what follows – the ‘fantasia’ on ländler rhythms whose symmetrical elegance is constantly undercut by that glancing irony at its most acute during the final pages, when the texture appears to disintegrate out of weariness then from any more rational intent.

Excellent as was the City of Birmingham Symphony’s playing thus far, it raised its game for the third movement – the Rondo-Burleske whose contrapuntal intricacy can become turgid at too stolid a tempo and lose definition at too rapid a pace. Not that this fazed Volkov, who duly steered a secure course across what is tonally and emotionally Mahler’s most fractious statement – the soulful strains of its trio section allowing for precious little repose before the initial music returns in an explosive denouement. After this, the closing Adagio emerged as long-breathed yet never flaccid as it accumulated gravitas through to a fervent climax, then subsided into a coda shorn of false emoting or affectation – the CBSO strings all the while maintaining focus as Mahler’s silence-riven gestures seemingly attained the desired closure.

The brief though worthwhile first half had featured a brace of works by Czech composer who both flourished in the Nazi transit camp at Terezin before being murdered at Auschwitz. Not that there is any sense of encroaching dread in the Overture by Hans Krása – its purposeful elision of traits drawn from Stravinsky and Hindemith abetted by scoring as economical as it is characterful. Volkov secured an incisive rendering, only easing up for the final bars whose sense of suddenly opening-out onto new and unforeseen vistas was palpably conveyed here.

Even more engaging was the Partita by Gideon Klein. An arrangement – by Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003) – of the String Trio that proved to be Klein’s last completed work, it features at its centre a sequence of variations on a Moravian folksong in which elements derived from Janáček take on a distinctive and undeniably personal guise at the hands of one who would have surely found a defining role in post-war Czech music. If the vigorous outer movements seem less individual, they are none the less effective within the context of this piece overall.

In both these works, Volkov secured a spirited response from the CBSO strings (perhaps a little too dogged in the Klein). Hopefully he will return to this orchestra during the 2019/20 season, and hopefully include further pieces by the ‘Terezin generation’ in his programmes.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast as part of ‘Radio 3 in Concert’ on Friday 3rd May. To access that concert click on this link

Ilan Volkov is yet to record a Mahler symphony, but for a leading version of the Symphony no.9 from the Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan you can listen on Spotify below: