Orpheus … Choral Symphony

Orpheus – Ballet in three scenes
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Rebecca Evans (soprano), Caitlin Halcup (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) & James Rutherford (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Robert Wade

Reviewed: 15 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ilan VolkovIlan Volkov’s final BBC Prom as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 2003, presented a rarity and an old favourite. Stravinsky’s ballet music is being showcased throughout this Proms season; here performed was his penultimate dance score, Orpheus, followed by Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony.

Orpheus is a ballet in three scenes, written in 1947 and something of a transitional work, retaining much of Stravinsky’s neo-classical sheen, but developing it somewhat. The composer himself seems to have been dismissive of the work in later life; he considered it dated, a throwaway, and commented on its “dilatory length”. However, with the gift of retrospect, it is now easier to place this work in the context of Stravinsky’s development. As a concert piece it doesn’t work as well as much of his other ballet music; even Apollo, although composed twenty years earlier, comes off better in that context.

Volkov’s great gift is the clarity with which he treats layered textures, something that Orpheus ideally showcases in music that for the most part maintains a muted secretiveness. Volkov and the BBCSSO brought it off with aplomb, even if this work never quite gets to where it seems to be going.

Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony is of course one of best-known and most popular pieces of music in the Western world. It has been performed almost annually at the Proms since inception, if extraordinarily, for the first few decades the symphony was played without the last movement that gives it its name!

In this account Volkov’s textural clarity, ideal for the Stravinsky of Orpheus, took something of the spirit out of the work – but this performance was still riveting. Volkov took much of it pretty fast (indeed the solo singers in the finale were lagging behind at times), but not so swift for the sound to become muddy. The hyperactive timpani lines of the second movement were delivered crisply, although they came back at you in echo from the hall’s Gallery. In the slow movement, however, Volkov brought a sense of openness, allowing the sweeping lines to pour out beautifully and longingly.

If the echo with the timpani was an irritant, so too was every sibilant the chorus uttered, providing an unwanted hissing accompaniment. The soloists could have done with a little more power to out-sing the orchestra in the closing sections, but in quartet and in quieter sections they bought a particularly pleasant sweetness. Volkov had worked the chorus in some interesting ways. The jubilant “…vor Gott!”, which is so often milked too much was cut very short, almost shockingly so, with a longer than normal pause beyond, perhaps in a successful attempt to use the hall’s echo as an ally rather than a foe, as it lingered beautifully. Though rendered in an idiosyncratic manner, the hair-tingling feeling of belief in the goodness of mankind was present and an Albert Hall packed to the dome showed full appreciation.

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