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

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.

A Russian Song and Dance

A Russian Song and Dance – a varied program of Shostakovich, Musorgsky and Glazunov from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov

ilan-volkov

Yuri Vorobiev (bass voice), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (pictured) – City Halls, Glasgow, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b050xqzs

on the iPlayer until 6 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available.

With no recordings of this music made by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to date, I have chosen suitable alternatives:

 

What’s the music?

Shostakovich – a selection from King Lear (1971) (18 minutes)

Musorgsky – Songs and Dances of Death (1875-1877) (18 minutes)

Glazunov – The Seasons (1900) (38 minutes)

What about the music?

king-lear

A poster for the 1971 Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear

Russian composers took frequent inspiration from the works of Shakespeare, especially Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, responsible for arguably the two most famous interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Shostakovich wrote a mass of film and ballet scores, but only encountered The Bard twice – once in Hamlet and twice in the darkly scored King Lear – for the stage in 1940 and then in 1971 for Grigori Kozintsev’s film.

Musorgsky wrote Songs and Dances of Death, his last and most popular song cycle* for voice, between 1875 and 1877, but he did not live to be old enough to orchestrate the four songs. The collection was orchestrated initially by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who worked together in making a number of the composer’s scores fit for orchestral purpose. Shostakovich himself arranged a version in 1962, but here the conductor Ilan Volkov opts to use a ‘cleaner and simpler’ version by Edison Denisov from 1982.

As to the texts, they are each a nail in the coffin – but Lullaby, Serenade, Trepak and The Field Marshal do on occasion have slightly lighter moments, the rich timbre of the Russian bass is offset by gallows humour from the accompaniment. The texts are difficult – a mother’s last vigil over an infant in Lullaby, with death standing at the door, then the story of a terrible courtship in Serenade, an apparition in a forest for Trepak and finally, famously, The Field Marshal, who surveys his dead soldiers as though in victory.

Glazunov is often looked down on by people outside of the history of Russian music, regarded as an inferior composer to those around him such as Rachmaninov or his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet he had a big part to play in the country’s musical history and was hugely admired by Shostakovich and Prokofiev if not Stravinsky. As well as teaching and conducting he wrote nine symphonies, ballets, concertos and a number of orchestral pieces – The Seasons among them. As Ilan Volkov says in a brief interview before the performance here, Glazunov is in effect a bridge between Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky where ballet is concerned. As you will hear from this work, there is rarely anything less than a hummable tune!

Glazunov opts to begin with the Spirit of Winter, expressed through dance variations for Frost, Ice, Hail and Snow that have orchestral touches similar to those used by Tchaikovsky in The Nutcracker. The music gets warmer as Spring arrives, then positively bathes in the Summer sunshine, before the big tune of the whole evening is revealed at the onset of Autumn. Not for Glazunov the bleakness of the trees stripped bare – rather he prefers to celebrate the leaves whirling around his head!

Performance verdict

A really well thought out program from the typically enterprising Ilan Volkov, leading his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra charges in a powerful concert. The Shostakovich is dark and rather foreboding, and although lacks the intensity of the composer’s symphonies it still carries some of his distinctive musical fingerprints, which the woodwind in particular find.

Yuri Vorobiev gives a thoroughly authentic performance of the Musorgsky, and even listening on the radio you can catch a glint in the eye at times. The reduced orchestration of Denisov helps with clarity when placing the words.

The Seasons is a warm-hearted performance, with charm aplenty from the orchestra. The woodwind sparkle, with excellent contributions from flute (winter) and oboe, while the strings have a really nice bounce to their rhythms.

The rustic Autumn Bacchanal is a winner!

What should I listen out for?

Shostakovich

3:40 – a stern brass statement

9:03 – The creeping (and creepy) line assigned to low bass strings – pure Shostakovich, this! It opens out into a tense orchestral discourse at 10’58”

14:47 – The start of the storm. A curiously slow storm, this does nonetheless have staying power.

19:33 – another dark passage of music, culminating in a bold clarinet cry at 20:42 (brilliantly played!)

Musorgsky

The words can be found here, on page 20 of the pdf booklet

23:40 – A reedy introduction cuts to the singer who sings sorrowfully. Listen to the single strike of the percussion when he proclaims how “death the deliverer is here!” Vorobiev shows beautiful control at the end

28:05 – The Serenade, and the “magical, tender night!” has a silvery sheen in Denisov’s orchestration. There is a terrible stroke of death right at the end from the orchestra.

31:58 – The dance of Trepak is a rather grotesque affair, Vorobiev taking the lead even as the forest closes in through swirling woodwind and strings.

36:12 – a triumphant start to The Field Marshal, with strings swirling and trumpets blazing in the heat of battle. A thrilling and ultimately uplifting end, the singer defiant even in death.

Glazunov

1:05:22 – the cold winter casts its frozen spell, but with elaborate flourishes from the orchestra less than two minutes in Glazunov quickly sets out his stall for a colourful piece.

1:11:37 – a jaunty second part of the Ice variation, showing off the composer’s prowess with orchestration

1:21:07 – a sweeping violin melody that sees the culmination of Spring.

1:22:35 – The lovely Waltz of Corn Flowers and Poppies, music that brings summer in with a real swing – though Volkov is very subtle in this performance, the poise of the waltz reminding me of the Strausses.

1:26:36 – the Variation within Summer, complete with burbling clarinet.

1:31:58 – probably the most famous tune heard within The Seasons. This is the soaring Bacchanal, the dance that opens Autumn. The accompaniment effectively describes the leaves swirling around!

1:39:55 – the bracing final section, The Satyr.

Want to hear more?

For more Glazunov, the Violin Concerto is heartily recommended, a single movement piece lasting 20 minutes that packs in thrills and spills with plenty more good tunes.

This website is already exploring a fair bit of Musorgsky, having talked about Pictures at an Exhibition earlier in the week. For even more I would take a deep breath and explore the incredible epic opera Khovantschina, one of the great cornerstones of Russian opera.

For Shostakovich there is plenty more to hear, but keeping in with his works for stage and screen, I would suggest the ballet The Age of Gold, a story about football!

Glossary

*song cycle – as the name suggests, a group of songs written by a composer tending to focus on a specific theme or author.

For more concerts click here