Philharmonia Orchestra/Volkov Simon Trpčeski

Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasia after Dante, Op.32
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 8 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ilan Volkov is Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Just turned 30, he has established a keen reputation for “lucidity of texture and structure, rhythmic vitality and depth of insight.”

One trademark is ensuring that individual instruments are heard – particularly the woodwinds. Whenever they are making a significant contribution to the progress and process of the music, he gives flute, clarinet, bassoon or whatever a solo spot – we hear entire those phrases often heard only partly through being crowded out by other instruments. (Sometimes, however, the instrument in question should be heard in counterpoint with other instruments.)

Another trademark is, indeed, to pay attention to contrapuntal aspects of the writing – sometimes at unexpected moments, where we are accustomed to hearing a melody played virtually solo. Volkov brings other parts to the fore, gaining life and urgency for the music.

He also pays more attention than usual to the orchestra’s lower tones, making such interventions more telling, however brief they may be. We distinctly hear the contrabassoon and the bass trombone. More significantly still, Volkov manages to enrich the sound texture generally, deepening it without losing clarity.

The first two works in this concert were written by men in a depressed state – Tchaikovsky in a serious dilemma over his homosexuality; Sibelius anxious about the possible return of cancer while denying himself the support of tobacco and drink.

Francesca da Rimini is a descent into hell, a vision of shared love that has brought Paolo and Francesca there. The opening was impressively dark and opaque. I felt not far from the brooding menace of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. The crescendo was rather lame – but the shimmering urgency of the love theme made amends. The re-descending gloom lacked consequence.

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony was transparent – the textures were gritty, a chamber-like economy was evident, the tempos were measured and convinced, and the climaxes – well prepared – had stature and volume. Yet it all sounded rather odd. Playing of considerable character and integrity produced a strangely character-less overall outcome. Volkov seemed to be treating the symphony as a personal emotional testimony – even though the composer himself was notoriously unlikely to be making intense statements of his current mood or fears. There was no timeless granite.

The Rachmaninov was a splendid affair in its extraverted moments. Volkov encouraged the Philharmonia to play with verve and panache. Simon Trpčeski responded well. He plays with steely panache, in hard, brilliant tone. Neither he nor Volkov seem to have encountered languor, delicacy, wistful melancholy or a sense of humour. So they made a matching pair. The encore – are encores necessary or desirable, following a concerto? – was a short ‘prelude’, possibly in a minor key, and certainly inaudibly introduced.

The best came last. This was impassioned, vital, energetic Debussy – surging, rhythmic and colourful. Here, Volkov’s difficulties with languor were to the music’s advantage. This was no ‘somnolent sea with very occasional bursts of energy. This sea moved all the time. It was heaving and restless – sparkling in the sunlight and revelling in the activity of pointillist orchestral colour. We glimpsed the young Debussy who had insisted on being taken out on a stormy sea – “a type of passionate feeling that I haven’t before experienced. Danger! …You’re really living.”

In the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius, Volkov got somewhat below the skin of the notes. This is no mean feat, catching the attention. In La mer, however, he really dug deep. The difference was manifest.

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