Friday 14 August 2009

Prom 38: Gerhardt/BBC SSO/Volkov - Ravel, Unsuk Chin, and Stravinsky

Royal Albert Hall

Ravel – La Valse
Unsuk Chin – Cello Concerto (BBC commission, world premiere)
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Alban Gerhardt (violoncello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

I have never heard the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sound so good. Ilan Volkov clearly leaves the orchestra on a high; it will be interesting to follow its fortunes under the very different leadership of Donald Runnicles. (My first opportunity to do so will be at the end of this month in Edinburgh.) My first impressions – and these are only impressions of a southerner – had been mixed: from the Proms, I recall splendid Janáček but indifferent Mahler and Berlioz. Last year, however, I was privileged to attend a marvellous Prom, comprised of music by Jonathan Harvey, Messiaen, and Varèse. The present concert, including the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto, kept up the good work.

One thing that struck me about the opening performance of La Valse was how ‘French’ the BBC SSO sounded: not in the old French sense we know from historic recordings, since no one sounds like that anymore, but I could readily have taken the orchestra for, say, the Orchestre de Paris or the Orchestre National de France. Such was the vein in which Volkov approached La Valse, rather than taking the starting-point of a Viennese waltz turned sour. There was a sense of fantasy from the opening, exemplified by weird, slightly sinister woodwind. Rhythm was clearly defined but not inflexible. The gloss to the strings on heard surely paid testament to Volkov’s abilities as an orchestral trainer. Much of this performance was more kaleidoscopic, less overtly threatening than one often hears. I was put in mind of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; but we all know where that leads, and so did Ravel here. Another kinship revealed more obviously than I can previously recall was with the ballet scores of Prokofiev; indeed, it was unusually clear that this was a ballet. It was a fine performance, though perhaps it tended a little too much to the orchestral showpiece; on the other hand, maybe that is just the Vienna-obsessive in me speaking – just for a change...

Alban Gerhardt was the outstanding soloist, performing from memory, in the premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto. What struck me immediately and throughout was how well written for the instrument the piece was; in Gerhardt’s words, ‘I believe she finds a way to balance colourful orchestral writing with the fragility of “just a cello”. We cellists don’t have the same projection as piano or violin, and ... Unsuk was taken great care in composing a wonderfully colourful yet transparent concerto.’ The first movement is entitled Aniri, which denotes a narrative passage – alternating with sung passages – in the Korean dramatic form, P’ansori, which would be performed by a singing actor and drummer. Thus the solo part takes the form of a recurring narrative, first announced in this opening movement. Growing from a single note, so prominently recurring that no one could fail to notice it on a first hearing, the soloists line moves away from and yet refers to it. The excellent BBC SSO provided a bedrock for the soloists’ deviation; later in the movement, these roles are somewhat reversed, putting me in mind of a sort of distorted arch form, developmental yet never quite breaking free. A highly dramatic percussion crash heralds the end of this, the longest of the movement, Gerhardt’s quivering, almost shell-shocked tone being all that remained in the closing bars. Unwanted applause followed: ‘something must be done...’.

There follows a brief, scherzo-like movement. Both soloist and orchestra – unturned percussion now very much to the fore – have plenty of opportunities, here well taken, to display their virtuosity, but never, it seemed, merely for its own sake. In a sense of contagion, solo figures are transferred to and developed by the orchestra, always restless, always febrile. The third movement is the still centre of the work. Here Gerhardt’s instrument could once again truly sing, in a vocalised part not entirely dissimilar from a Shostakovich lament. The solo part often lies very high, its tone contrasting with a Stravinskian chorale – think The Soldier’s Tale – on muted trumpets. With the fourth and final movement, the music builds to a warranted narrative climax. The cello sounds a little unsure of itself to begin with, ‘as if preparing,’ in the words of Habakuk Traber’s programme note,’ a thoughtful improvisation’. This is just how it sounded in Gerhardt’s hands. It was as if, but most definitely as if, he were slightly distracted: a difficult trick to bring off, as opposed to straightforwardly being distracted, which anyone could do. The orchestral part becomes steadily more violent, and this certainly registered in the BBC SSO’s performance. But the cello takes a different, ultimately more fruitful path, moving upwards in pitch towards the very limit of its range. It takes us back into the silence from which that initial pitch emerged: not quite Die Jakobsleiter, with its extraordinary soprano voice, but perhaps an analogy for the cello. When this fine performance concluded, I was instantly keen to hear the work again.

Volkov presented an interesting account of that towering masterpiece, The Rite of Spring. There is nowadays something of an imperative to present a new slant on the work; sometimes it can work, sometimes not, but worth trying to avert the danger of becoming merely an orchestral showpiece. Volkov’s conception seemed to be to bring the Rite closer to Stravinsky’s other Russian ballets than is often the case. Petrushka in particular was never far away, not least in the characterful playing of teeming wind. The colourful performance made a connection with La Valse. This Rite was bright and exuberant, less mysterious than some. I was impressed by the full sound of the BBC SSO’s strings, often an Achilles heel for British orchestras, but not here. Although much was bright, there were hieratic interludes, perhaps looking forward to the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, between the more dionysiac sections. The Procession of the Sage was properly dramatic, though not very mysterious: a very public procession, which, one might well argue, is very much what it is. Mother Russia was certainly present in the opening to the second part, and mystery was now conjured up by the muted trumpets (I thought of Chin’s chorale). But the general mood remained brightly colourful, sometimes evoking the Rimskian example of The Firebird. The music of the ancestors was equally full of orchestral colour, a pattern continued into the closing Sacrificial Dance. Rhythms, while far from vague, were perhaps not so blisteringly, exactly threatening as in a performance, say, by Boulez. This Rite seemed more of a conductor’s than a composer-conductor’s conception. For the seeds of what was to come, from Boulez to Birtwistle, one would have had to look elsewhere, but the concept was perfectly valid and was very well executed.