Ilan Volkov conducts George Lewis and Beethoven with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

George Lewis
Minds in Flux [BBC commission: world premiere]

Ah! Perfido, Op.65
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36

Lucy Crowe (soprano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Damon Holzborn – Computer software design/realisation
Sound Intermedia – Sound realisation

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A concert of two halves, separated by 200 years, opened with the world premiere of the longest BBC commission of this Proms season, reuniting Chicago-born composer George Lewis with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony, though this was Lewis’s Proms debut.  Minds in Flux – finished just two months ago in Berlin, where Lewis has been teaching for a year – is a sprawling half-hour score that electronically manipulates live orchestral sounds (instruments individually microphoned) to create a surround-sound mix that effortlessly filled the Royal Albert Hall.  A deep grumbling opening, pierced – like shafts of light – by high flute phrases (I immediately thought of gulls calling above a seething sea) gradually opens to more teeming textures, like a giant awakening, perhaps.  It eventually builds to a clattering climax that dissipates and slows under mournful trombone calls, its syncopated string chords dying away to one last, muted burst.

The synthesised sounds bled from high-up all around the Hall in an attempt to capture Lewis’s avowed aim of sounding the interregnum between colonialism and decolonisation (in cultural terms).  Here he finds most hope, and there is certainly a questing feel to the musical trajectory: a cross between Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Birtwistle’s Earth Dances, perhaps, in its combination of extra-musical philosophical ideas and the passage of time.  It was given an extraordinarily assured performance by the BBC Scottish under Volkov, laid out in the ‘German’ fashion, with antiphonal violins, and basses at the back of the strings.  Percussion stations, across the back, added to the timbral mix.  Lewis is 70 next year; hopefully the Proms will mark the occasion with a speedy return.

In the programme Volkov wrote that Beethoven is always good to pair with new music, as his music always sounds new.  And so it did, the stage cleared of all percussion (save a bank of timpani).  Lucy Crowe’s vital, urgent and dramatic rendition of stand-alone aria Ah! Perfido was rapturously done, catching the emotional turns of Beethoven’s setting of a Metastasio recitative and an anonymous verse on the same subject of love and betrayal.  Beethoven was in his mid-20s when he wrote it (long before it was published, hence its relatively high opus number) and instilled so much passion and angst into the music. 

To end, that ‘Cinderella’ of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Second.  Volkov plays it as if it is the greatest of Beethoven’s, and I was happily persuaded: the music springing from the page as if freshly written.  Still a young man’s music (Beethoven was just into his 30s), it bubbles and fizzes with invention, which must have sounded so radical at its dawn.  Like Lewis’s Minds in Flux, it is music of hope for the future, and sent a small but appreciative Proms audience out into the night satisfied and nourished. The Prom was filmed for broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday 3 September at 7 p.m.

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