Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
Sibelius The Oceanides, Op. 73 (1914)
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1921)
Waley-Cohen Demon (2022) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]
Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 (1915-19)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 22 February 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
A frequent visitor during the past quarter-century, Ilan Volkov’s concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are always to be anticipated, and so it proved with this evening’s programme which brought together the familiar and the new to engaging effect.
Sibelius provided a potent framework, The Oceanides (of which the CBSO made a fine recording with Simon Rattle now almost four decades ago) heard in a reading of unusual breadth and deliberation. Not that this ever impeded the progress of music whose almost impressionistic eddying goes hand in hand with inexorability of motion; the outcome a double climax whose spiralling intensity – visceral even in the context of Sibelius’s later music – makes way for a coda whose understated fatalism was affectingly conveyed here.
Along with her brother Sheku, Isata Kanneh-Mason has had a major impact on the UK music scene – her skill and insight evident throughout this performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. There was no lack of élan in passagework where the composer sought to confirm his own pianistic credentials as he built a career in the West, but also a tendency to brittleness as arguably sold the music short. It was in more reflective sections that Kanneh-Mason came fully into her own – the limpid musing on its main theme at the centre of the first movement, the spectral half-lights of its successor’s third variation, or the warmly expressive melody at the heart of the finale in which her rapport with Volkov was tangible. If the electrifying close brought less than the ultimate frisson, it still set the seal on a reading of impressive potential.
After the interval, another in the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions – the well-regarded Freya Waley-Cohen (above) duly responding with Demon. Its scenario evoking the more ominous of folk stories, this piece packed a considerable amount of incident into its 11 minutes – a Ligetian playfulness offsetting its frequently intricate polyphony to diverting and, throughout the final stages, impulsive effect. Drawing an incisive and precise response, Volkov seemed intent on presenting this colourful curtain-raiser as well worthy of further and repeated performance.
Volkov’s accounts of Sibelius’s Third and Fourth Symphonies were highlights of a complete cycle at the 2015 Proms, and this account of the Fifth found his advocacy undimmed. Others have found greater atmosphere in the first movement’s earlier stages, but the purposefulness with which he built to its defining climax was undoubted; as too a corresponding build-up of momentum in its ‘scherzo’ – Matthew Hardy’s volleys of timpani spearheading the propulsive coda. More intermezzo than slow movement, the Andante had an appealingly winsome aura for all its darker undertones (with some delectable woodwind playing), while the finale made the most of its contrasts in motion – the ‘swan melody’ eloquently rendered – on the way to an apotheosis whose surging affirmation was driven home by those indelible closing chords.
An impressive performance, then, such as brought this concert to a suitably inspiring close. Volkov is on the podium again this Sunday – directing the CBSO Youth Orchestra in a new piece by Bergrun Snaebjörnsdottir, heard alongside music by Grażyna Bacewicz and Berlioz.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist and composer names for more on Ilan Volkov, Isata Kanneh-Mason and Freya Waley-Cohen