BBC Scottish/Volkov 2

Symphony No.32 in G, K318
The Eternal Gospel
Symphony No.7

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano)
John Daszak (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 11 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Something non-musical first – the ghastly colours projected onto the organ. I wish there were good reasons for doing this, especially when there are no television cameras (like tonight) to ‘justify’ such tackiness.

Lighting aside, there was some very good music-making to confirm the relationship between the BBC Scottish SO and its young principal conductor is one developing into an inspiring partnership, although Mozart’s overture-symphony seemed superfluous and acted as an odd entrée to two works that were already a substantial enough concert.

Janáček’s The Eternal Gopsel, although coming from just before the explosion of masterpieces that marked the composer’s final decade, is seldom heard. Indeed, the programme revealed the shocking truth that this was the work’s first performance at the Proms, although Colin Davis conducted it in London in 2001. It needs a large orchestra (and has a significant organ part), two soloists (the tenor having most work to) and a chorus that actually seems to do very little. Every piece by Janáček needs to be delivered white-hot – even works that are not from his top drawer – unfortunately this performance, along with all the other Janáček performances so far at this year’s Proms, merely simmered; it was just too polite and tidy. The lurching from one idea to another, so much a part of this extraordinary composer’s character, had little effect and there was some distinctly off-target solo-playing from the leader. The London Philharmonic Choir did its best with Janáček’s ungrateful writing, though a touch more Slavic passion wouldn’t have gone amiss. Of the soloists Gweneth-Ann Jeffers took her angelic place above the orchestra and gave an idiomatic rendition, whilst John Daszak battled bravely against the orchestra in his frequently stratospheric passages.

The photograph in the programme chosen to accompany the notes for Mahler’s mostly-nocturnal Seventh Symphony was absurd – one of resting cows and snow-capped mountains that looked more like an advert from the Swiss tourist board than an intelligent visual counterpart to the music. Yes, there are cowbells in the score and, as in most performances, they sounded ridiculous – like someone pottering around in the kitchen. A strange miscalculation on Mahler’s part I have always thought (blasphemous person that I am!).

Ilan Volkov caught the muted opening of the symphony very well – helped by an unusually attentive and quiet audience – a veiled funeral march; the haunting tenor tuba solo being beautifully played by Nigel Cox. The energetic progression that followed was solemn and heavy, a little under tempo perhaps, but the sudden changes of mood were effectively captured.

Audience grumble: what sort of person takes a flash-photo at a moment like the opening of the second movement? At least the horn calls were given against a wonderfully still background, making the succeeding nightmare-scherzo even more effective. Volkov’s tempos were well judged in both movements and balances finely managed, and the cellos excelled in their sleazy, café melody in the former. In the love-related fourth movement a little more of the mandolin and guitar would have been welcome, though Mahler’s orchestration is not so helpful here. Volkov caught the false joviality of the pageant-like finale and the passing references (some subtle, some less so) to other composers, although the climactic coda lacked sufficient power and volume. All in all, though, there was much that was impressive, and no doubts about the BBCSSO’s current, excellent standard.

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