Shift [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Concerto for Orchestra

Sarah Chang (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 2 July, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

With Mikko Franck indisposed due to illness, it fell to fellow ‘wunderkind’ Ilan Volkov to take over this concert at the eleventh hour.

As well as two works from the standard repertory, there was the premiere of the latest LSO/UBS commission to master at the shortest notice. At 23, its composer Daniel Basford is even fresher-faced than Volkov, and was a winner in last year’s LSO Discovery Competition Project. The accompanying puff trails the obligatory interest in non-classical idioms, in this case Latin and funk musics, as if there were any young composer now writing whose work did not display the heterogeneous tastes characteristic of our ipod era. Basford’s short piece, Shift, showed a confident way with orchestral effects, but its material was stretched very thinly. Basford is an able composer at a very early stage in his career, but Shift only emphasised the skill of an Adès or a Turnage, who can make such crossover alchemy seem effortless.

Perhaps due to the late substitution in front, Sarah Chang’s performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto was an unsettled affair. Chang is an intelligent and creative musician, whose flawless technique is merely a springboard for an account of a piece. Here she seemed to be driving for a raw expressive intensity, to which end she played with a sharp, narrow tone and eccentric vibrato. Chang always has the body language of a tennis pro, trading volleys with the conductor, but here had to work extra hard to push Volkov up to her preferred tempos. It was unclear whether her beady eye on the first violins was a sign of involvement or frustration; likewise her joining in with the tutti at the end of the first movement.

Volkov and orchestra were more assured in Bartók’s orchestral tour de force, in an account that emphasised clarity and excitement. This worked best in the second-movement ‘Game of Pairs’, in which the LSO’s excellent woodwind relished every jaunty syncopation. The ‘night music’ of the central movement suffered, however – there being insufficient attention paid to timbre and mood; it was as though a searchlight had been shone on Bartók’s rarefied world of strange and lovely noises: revealing, but counterproductive. Volkov drove the finale as the original ‘short ride in a fast machine’, creating a thrilling conclusion to an uneven evening.

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