BBC Symphony Orchestra/Volkov [Ballad of Heroes … Untitled No.2 … Eroica Symphony]

Ballad of Heroes, Op.14
James Clarke
Untitled No.2, for piano and orchestra [co-commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the City of Darmstadt: UK premiere]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Toby Spence (tenor)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Crouch End Festival Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 April, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Ilan Volkov. Photograph: Simon ButterworthPublic transport was erratic because of a certain Royal Wedding in central London, so I missed the only, so far, live performance of Britten’s “Ballad of Heroes” that I might have heard. That great facility, the BBC iPlayer, had to fill in the gap later (the concert was broadcast on Radio 3). The 26-year-old ferociously precocious Britten composed “Ballad of Heroes” in short score in a mere four days to poems by W. H. Auden and the communist writer Randall Swingler to honour the men of the International Brigade who had been killed fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a big, public statement, very much the work of a young composer, and wears its heart on its sleeve. The Crouch End Festival Chorus had no reservations about its shocked emotionalism, with Toby Spence the forthright tenor in the recitative passage “Still though the scene of possible summer recedes”.

I like to think that the concert’s heroism theme informed James Clarke’s Untitled No.2. However, to judge from the broadcast conversation between the 53-year-old composer and the presenter Petroc Trelawney, perhaps that would shunt our reaction to the work, first heard in Darmstadt in 2008, into too unhelpfully specific an area, even though the stage layout, with a concert grand braced for action in front of the orchestra, created concerto-type expectations apparently not written into the music. Clarke is also a painter, with a strong sympathy for the uncompromising images of artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, who were both cautious about the power of giving a title. So the listener was asked to approach Untitled No.2 in a state of free-fall association, in much the same way that you can gaze at one of those vast Rothko canvases to the point of a state of suspended animation – and the work brought similar rewards in terms of contemplating the back-to-basics mystery of our relationship with sound.

The music, to these ears at least, is both rigorous and highly emotional – that is, and bearing in mind its Darmstadt provenance, it didn’t shout cerebral inapproachability at you. Its clearly defined sections, including a remarkable, long passage of hypnotic stasis, its little victories of organisation which then go on to further development, its defining and thrilling moments of crisis, the orchestral colour and range of sound from the piano, gave the listener plenty subliminally and satisfyingly to chew on. It was a subtly controlled stream of consciousness, and a reminder of how hard-edged our dream-worlds can be. There were reminders of Sibelius in the slowly moving layers of sound – in his programme-note Clarke referred to the role of the piano as being like one of several stratas of rock in a canyon; there were aspects of final Mahler in some of the more anguished scoring; and an objective, visionary monumentalism that evoked shades of late Tippett and, to a lesser extent, Messiaen. Nicolas Hodges, required to play more or less continuously during the work’s 25-minute span, was the powerful soloist; and Ilan Volkov brought all his pithy incisiveness to this enthralling work. In short, it was hugely impressive.

Volkov was just as incisive in the ‘Eroica’, where the heroism was unabashed. The BBCSO’s lithe playing and wiry, nervy sound was the perfect vehicle for Volkov’s acute ear for Beethoven’s own crisis and surprise tactics in a symphony that sounds more complex at every hearing. There was memorable release of energy into the first movement’s coda, and the finale had the effect of feeding on its own power and momentum.

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