Prom 27 – San Francisco Polyphony

San Francisco Polyphony
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC Scottish Symphony has landed on its feet with Ilan Volkov. His predecessor, Osmo Vänskä, is a tough act to follow. Volkov, just 26 and six months into the job, is his own man and pursuing a wholly natural path – he is a musician to his fingertips. Such musicality, and a lucid conducting technique, can only be exceptional markers for the future. He will, one imagines and hopes, add a little more temperament and imposition to his music-making. This subtly drawn, lyrical and distortion-free Brahms 4 was a model of cohesiveness and timbral blends. There were, however, moments when a little more tension, a little more embossing, was needed to sustain the whole.

Volkov has in the BBC Scottish an orchestra seemingly with him 100 percent, the musicians listen and react to each other with a response that suggests faith in and regard for a conductor who is only there for the music. Rejecting the epic qualities of this symphony, but not denuding its import, Volkov’s straight furrow and lyrical flow owed nothing to nobody in terms of interpretative lineage. All over in 38 minutes, there was no charge or rush; Volkov seems a master of letting the music speak for itself while allowing no charges of anonymity or pedanticism to be cited. A seamless reading that reminded how great the work is.

Volkov’s masterly understatement (which still captured the all-important ’sigh’ of the first bar) was wasted on those who applaud between movements. Be that process one of ignorance or bloody-mindedness, Volkov was explicit in keeping the ear and senses moving forward, a through line to ultimate tragedy (not overt here). He ended the first movement with a slightly ’softened’ final chord, Celibidache-like (a colon rather than a full stop); applaud after that and you really don’t have any understanding of ’why’ or of music as a totality.

Applause infiltrated the Beethoven too, easier to accept with a soloist and a brilliant concerto if just as unwelcome – Kovacevich launched the finale to clapping. He was in fine form. An ebullient, appropriately rough-hewn display, playfulness and subtlety present too amidst ceremonial splendour. So too power, delicacy, phrasal yielding, dynamic variety and sensitivity. And personality! The first movement cadenza was interesting (Beethoven left three). Kovacevich normally plays the big flamboyant one. He did here – eventually. Having started in unusual territory he worked his way back to the expected display. Clever! The slow movement, attractively walking despite the ’Largo’ marking, was balm to the ear and highlighted the close response between all those performing. A fresh, invigorating performance from, let it be said, one of the great pianists.

The very first work Volkov conducted as the BBCSSO’s Chief Conductor was San Francisco Polyphony – good that he brought it to London – György Ligeti’s remarkable study in sound and mechanism. There’s drama too, which Volkov built very effectively to justify a very long silence at the end (respected by the audience). That he took three minutes longer than the suggested 12 was evinced by a very expressive, concentrated, theatrical even, performance, one meticulous to sound-mesh, calibration and compass. I recall Ligeti being critical of Boulez for similarly distending this work. I wonder what he’d make of Volkov. Hopefully he would appreciate a standard of preparation as fastidious as his own notation.

The BBC Philharmonic has just moved to extend Gianandrea Noseda’s contract until the end of 2008. He’s not been in Manchester much longer than Volkov has in Glasgow. Whatever Volkov’s contract details are, the SSO’s management might like to make him another, extended offer!

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday 12 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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