La valse … Unsuk Chin Cello Concerto … The Rite of Spring

La valse – poème choreographique
Unsuk Chin
Cello Concerto [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Rite of Spring [1943 version]

Alban Gerhardt (cello)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 13 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ilan VolkovAt the end of his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov wove a concert quite ordinary at the edges but with a heart of pure gold.

Rejected as a ballet by Diaghilev, Ravel’s choreographic poem is more a painting of a waltz than a dance in itself. Incredibly detailed in its construction, Ravel paints layer upon layer so that, over time, the final picture emerges out of the disparate elements. With such an abundance of shades to choose from, attention to detail is important if the performance isn’t to become an unstructured mess. The BBCSSO, more formless at the start than perhaps the composer had intended, breathed new life into this well-worn piece. If only presentable overall, Volkov’s attention to inner details made for an interesting rendition, unfamiliar lines coming unexpectedly to the fore.

It is peculiar how Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring can seem quite ordinary when considering its reputation for causing (probably planned) riots at its first performance. On the whole Volkov’s was an unmemorable performance, although it did draw listeners’ ears to unaccustomed places, even if focusing on the unfamiliar made for a confusing aural experience. The strings were noticeably lacking in volume and percussion could be an anti-climatic damp-squib. The Rite’s second part improved on the first with greater variation in colour with some fine contributions from the wind section. With the final two chords crushed into one (there are five notes in the ‘up beat’ to the last chord) the performance ended on a relative high. Though by now the damage was done.

Alban Gerhardt. Photograph: albangerhardt.comWritten in four movements, Unsuk Chin’s new Cello Concerto, written for Alban Gerhardt, made a big impression. Chin takes a single note as an axis from which the work develops. The first movement, the longest of the four, bears a title, ‘Aniri’, which is the narrative part of a p’ansori performance (a traditional Korean musical drama). The large orchestra, including fizzy-drink bottles, was utilised for plenty of colour as it tiptoed delicately around the solo cello. Frenetic strings characterise the second ‘blink and it’s gone’ if seemingly superfluous movement.

Returning to the single note once again for the third movement, Alban Gerhardt, who played this technically demanding work from memory, effortlessly brought out the delicious chorale melody accompanied by a whispering band glued to Volkov’s sympathetic beat: pure gold! Barking strings awoke a transfixed audience for the finale that pitches volleys from the soloist to orchestra and back in a confrontation reminiscent of the end of the first movement. The extreme virtuosity demanded by Chin would test any cellist to the limit; yet Gerhardt wants to take the work “on the road and establish it as the best concerto written in the last 30 years”. He could well be right.

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