Prom 26 – The Welcome Arrival of Rain

Composer Portrait – Judith Weir

Music for 247 strings
Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album
Distance and Enchantment

Judith Weir in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Contemporary Consort of the Royal College of Music

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 26

The Welcome Arrival of Rain [UK premiere]
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Heinrich Schiff (cello)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There’s a quizzical, speculative feel to much of Judith Weir’s music that works especially well at an ensemble level (with or without voice). The “Composer Portrait” prior to the main Prom offered an enticing showcase to that effect. Two pieces were from the 1980s – the pithy snapshots of Music for 247 strings (243 + 4 for those pianists and violinists among us) and the deceptively whimsical Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album. Following was the recent Distance and Enchantment, in which the often-agitated interplay of the piano quartet simulates but never merely imitates a larger-scale discourse.

Such discourse was evident in The Welcome Arrival of Rain, premiered by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra in January and now included as the enterprising opening item of Ilan Volkov’s Proms debut. The inspiration of the coming of the monsoon-season in India, the title derived from Hindu epic verse, underlines a process in which twin melodic lines span a musical texture of proliferating density and animation – spurred on, in the latter respect, by the prominence of roto toms and tomtoms. Impressively judged as an evolving organic entity, but less distinctive in actual content, and – for all that Volkov’s performance sounded prepared and conscientious – still with a feeling that Weir’s orchestral writing is chamber composition writ large rather than conceived directly for the apparatus at hand.

Projection on a not dissimilar level is to be found in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, where the ruminative intimacy of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is at a premium in the expanse of the Albert Hall. With Heinrich Schiff alternately robust and yielding in the solo part, formal integration was ensured, but there was often a sense that the expressive depth of the music was simply being relayed rather than created anew. The ’serenade’ of the central slow movement, with its warm-hued harmonies and almost Berliozian pizzicato strings, was the undoubted highlight.

Volkov’s concert debut as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony included a powerful if at times overwrought account of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This performance of Shostakovich 10 confirmed an impressive grasp and understanding of symphonic logic. That this was a consciously musical performance should not imply any lack of emotional depth or characterisation. Rather Volkov sought to integrate the thematic elements in the arch-like span of the opening ’Moderato’ without point-making and at an almost constant basic pulse. Whether or not a portrait of Stalin, the brief ensuing ’Allegro’ has a compacted violence that was sold short here, while the seemingly inscrutable emotions of the ’Allegretto’ were a little too literally delineated – notably the magical ’semplice’ passage on high woodwind near the centre of the movement, a musical definition of the ’unbearable lightness of being’ if ever there was one.

Yet the expectant dissolve at the movement’s close, and the bleak austerity of the ’Andante’ portion of the finale were judged to a nicety. At a forward but never headlong tempo, the main ’Allegro’ was truculently delivered – the DSCH motto blasted out implacably before heading into the coda. Sloppy percussion work here (not least some spurious-sounding cymbal clashes) detracted from the overall assurance of orchestral response.

Interpretatively speaking, Volkov as yet lacks the means to generate an inexorable momentum – in passages like the central climax in the opening movement or the coda in the finale – that marks out great from fine conducting. That one can speak of such qualities with a conductor still in his ’twenties is, of course, a sign of the innate ability that Volkov has at his disposal.

  • Radio 3 of Prom 26 re-broadcast on Monday 11 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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