Tapiola … Ecuatorial … La Mer

Tapiola, Op.112
Piano Concerto, Op.13
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Steven Osborne (piano)

Tenebrae (men’s voices)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Another concert consisting largely of ‘Proms Firsts’, and a further demonstration of the versatility in programming that Ilan Volkov has shown as Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. A tribute to Sibelius for the 50th anniversary of his death brought Tapiola (1926) in a performance of fluid energy. Not for Volkov the brooding depths of the composer’s introspective late masterpiece; here the salient motifs were, from the outset, channelled into a continuum of startling contrast and rapid transformation that never relaxed in its momentum. Fine orchestral playing, too, though very different from the ‘Sibelius sound’ that Osmo Vänskä would have secured during his tenure with this orchestra. Clearly unfazed by the daunting legacy of his predecessor, Volkov is emerging as a Sibelian in his own right.

To proceed from here to Britten’s Piano Concerto (1938) is to descend appreciably in intensity. This relatively early work would be unlikely to garner the number of performances it now enjoys had its composer written more for the orchestra in his maturity, and the charge of facility that dogged him throughout this period are not hard to detect. That said, Steven Osborne went a considerable way towards making a virtue of this – whether in the coruscating virtuosity of the ‘Toccata’ (the serene return of its second theme after the cadenza thoughtfully prepared), the Waltonian acerbity of the ‘Waltz’ (with Volkov making the most of some bizarre scoring), or those telling shifts in perspective Britten draws from his passacaglia theme in the ‘Impromptu’ replacing the original slow movement in 1945 to provide added gravitas. The ‘March’ will always be redolent of the emotional play-acting that affected so much left-wing British artwork during this period, but Osborne invested its rhetorical surges with a fair degree of purpose, while the over-wrought closing pages duly evinced their own excitement. Osborne even had enough in reserve for an alluring Oscar Peterson encore.

There could be no greater contrast than Varèse’s “Ecuatorial” (1934) that followed the interval. Drawing on a fervent Mayan incantation for deliverance, taken from the “Popol Vuh”, it foreshadows the recklessly ambitious theatrical and mixed-media projects of the period that were all destined to remain unrealised. To his characteristic line-up of trumpets, trombones and percussion, Varèse adds piano, organ and two ondes martenots to form a keyboard continuo like no other. Volkov had the measure of the work’s extremes of glowering intensity and speculative delicacy: less successful was the vocal part – entrusted to a chorus of unison basses rather than a solo singer, as the composer himself permitted, but which here lacked evocative intensity; the members of Tenebrae seemingly unable to project beyond a somnolent intoning of the text. A pity, as the piece sounds surprisingly well in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, and performances are – by definition – always going to be infrequent.

Which could not be said of Debussy’s La mer (1905), tonight notching up its 42nd appearance at the Proms. Once again, Volkov impressed with just how finely attuned the BBCSSO was to the music’s soundworld, while his ability to underline detail without recourse to needless point-making was equally evident. The only real failing was a tendency to characterise specific passages more for themselves than as part of an overreaching formal process (Debussy being unexpectedly close to Sibelius in this respect; perhaps the point would have been more evident had Jeux been performed instead), so that the work never quite seemed more than the sum of its admittedly astounding parts. Yet it would be churlish not to acknowledge the wealth of incident that Volkov drew from the score (the additional brass parts happily excluded), or of the certainty with which he steered the tempestuous final pages to their close. This is not a piece to be trifled; Volkov’s interpretation is evidently a fine one in the making.

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