En saga, Op.9
Andromeda [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Firebird

Noriko Kawai (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

James Dillon has done well by the Proms over the last fifteen years: four world premieres, all BBC commissions, including the memorable launch of his Violin Concerto in 2000. Andromeda is a piano concerto in all but name, but typical is its eschewing any likely associations the genre may previously have thrown up. Both the legend and constellation associated with that figure from Greek myth are indirectly invoked, but any overt mythological or astrological connotations can quickly be discounted.

Playing continuously for 32 minutes, Andromeda is described by its composer as comprising fifteen sections including a coda – yet, while these sections are not overly hard to deduce, the ways in which they follow on from each other and, more especially, reasons for doing so are central to the fascination of the piece. Dillon has spoken of the omni-directional working of memory in defining how sound is heard, and this seems as good a starting-point as any for evaluating music that unfolds in so unforced yet inscrutable a manner.

Three things stood out at a first hearing: the way in which the piano is poised effortlessly between solo and concertante roles, partaking of both but beholden to neither; the sheer luminosity of the orchestration, remarkable even by Dillon’s recent standards; and, related to this, the feeling that climactic points occur when the piano is heard more or less unaccompanied. Beyond these, the work evinces a distinct if elusive overall trajectory that positively invites further hearings.

Andromeda received a committed premiere from the admirable Noriko Kawai – her virtuosity the more remarkable for its understatement, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra responding ably to Ilan Volkov’s confident direction. Dillon’s music tends to become the more intriguing over time – making future performances the more desirable, and if Helmut Lachenmann was indeed in the audience, he must surely have been not a little touched with a work dedicated to him in his 70th-birthday year.

Programming Dillon is not easy, but this Proms context was by no means an irrelevant one. Whether or not his very fluid sense of continuity can reasonably be termed ‘Sibelian’, the Finnish composer’s En saga launched the concert in instructive fashion. Volkov’s account was swift and purposeful, emphasising continuity over atmosphere, but not lacking in pathos either side of the climactic allegro section (and Yann Ghiro’s liquid clarinet soliloquy towards the work’s close was an especial pleasure).

Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony since January 2003, Volkov had a tough act to follow in taking over from Osmo Vänskä, but there can be little doubt that he has met the challenge head on (interestingly, both conductors can be heard in the orchestra’s “Sibelius Revisited” series in Glasgow this autumn: see link below). Volkov’s approach to The Firebird was to stress formal continuity and expressive focus – qualities not to be taken for granted in a work often played for scenic thrills above all else. Particular attention was given to the transitions between the main numbers, ensuring that the ballet never dragged over its (here) 47-minute course, and with a feeling for dynamic shading and sonority always evident. That said, the main set-pieces – the Firebird’s Supplication, the Princesses’ Khorovod and, above all, Kashchei’s Infernal Dance – ideally needed a greater sense of theatre for their attractions fully to register.

Volkov included the (1910) Original Version’s significant offstage parts for trumpets and Wagner tubas but, curiously, rendered the carillon motif in the apotheosis with the shorter note-values found in later revisions. An interesting stylistic mix – as, in essence, is the ballet as a whole.

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