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

Britten Sinfonia At Lunch Two: Anna Clyne’s This Lunar Beauty

britten-sinfonia

Julia Doyle (soprano), Marios Argiros (oboe), Maggie Cole (harpsichord), Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (cello), Caroline Dearnley (cello)

Wigmore Hall, 20 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you live in London or the South East of England, and fancy a bit of musical exploration, then the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series comes highly recommended.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the enterprise promises a brand new work in every concert – and proceeds to build the whole hour of music around it, often with the shared theme of a particular instrumental or vocal combination. With programme notes for adults or schoolchildren, it is one of the most accessible lunchtime concerts you could wish to enjoy – and as well as having the obvious bonus of professional quality performances, it is completely judgement-free!

This particular concert illustrated just why the formula works so well. Taking as its theme the combination of voice, oboe and strings, the Britten Sinfonia built an intricately weaved concert taking in arias from Bach and Scarlatti cantatas as well as two very different approaches to minimalism from Arvo Pärt and Ligeti. It was fitting, then, that the final piece – the new commission from Anna Clyne, This Lunar Beauty, should bring all these strands together.

anna-clyne

Anna Clyne photo by Javier Oddo

Setting the W.H. Auden poem of the same name, Clyne has written a piece of outstanding beauty. Its calling card is a distinctive melody that seems to be sourced from medieval England, but works it in a way of which the late 1960s British folk pioneers such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span or Pentangle would be entirely proud.

The repetitions of the tune, given in soprano Julia Doyle’s clear tones, were subtly varied by additions and subtractions to the instrumental texture, filling up with strings or paring back so the glitter of the harpsichord could be sensed on top. This Lunar Beauty left a strong emotional impression, using its forces sensitively in new music of rare quality and depth.

Before this, Doyle leant her clear tones to three varied arias from Bach Cantatas, with oboist Marios Argiros excelling in the obbligato to the aria Tief gebückt und voller Reue. We also heard Salvatore Sciarrino’s arrangement of two arias by Alessandro Scarlatti, the first of which had a striking accompaniment of muted strings without vibrato.

The two very different approaches to minimalism were fascinating. In Arvo Pärt’s Fratres time stood suspended as the string quartet’s theme, first heard in ghostly harmonics, gradually found body and soul before ebbing away into the distance. Ligeti’s Continuum froze time in a wholly different way, the solo harpsichord – brilliantly played by Maggie Cole – seemingly trapped in rapidly flashing strobes. Somehow, despite the hyperactive energy, this too found its own stillness.

A very fine concert, hopefully to be broadcast on the BBC in the future. In the meantime, have a listen to the audio below – and get yourselves over to listen to vocal works on Anna Clyne’s website, because this is a composer we want to hear a lot more of!

You can also hear her new Violin Concerto The Seamstress on the BBC iPlayer, performed by Jennifer Koh and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The concert is available until 14 February 2016