I know Ilan Volkov well from his successful tenure at the BBC SSO, prior to the man himself taking over. To some at the Maltings last night he was a new name, but judging from the reaction they were glad to make his acquaintance. Certainly I was not surprised that his interpretations of Jonathan Harvey and Colin Matthews marked the highlight of the festival so far for me (though I have only had four concerts to date). It helped, of course, that he had the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to work with. I've praised them before, most recently after their Edinburgh visit last summer, and am rather jealous of their forthcoming season.
In the first half, though, the standout performance came from horn soloist Richard Watkins in Colin Matthews' superb horn concerto. I've not encountered the piece before but it should be done more often. According to the programme note, "the horn solo is, literally, a wanderer". And it was refreshing to find that they didn't mean figuratively. The concerto began with both Watkins and Volkov absent from the stage, the orchestra's leader Laurence Jackson beating slowly with his bow. Volkov then tiptoed onto the podium to take up the reins while Watkins made himself heard from the wings. As the twenty minute, single movement work progressed, he made his way across the stage. This was more than just a gimmick as the sound of the horn changed in interesting ways with the Maltings' acoustic: the effect as he stood close to the stage right wall, the bell pointing towards it, was particularly nice. If the need for this odyssey presented an added challenge to Watkins it was not apparent in his playing which was beautifully executed throughout, without a cracked or fluffed note in sight. And as if that wasn't enough, Matthews provided extra horns by the upper doors for a quadraphonic effect. All this made for an experience that was not only excellent musically but also theatrically. It is always nice to come out of a performance of a contemporary piece wondering why on earth it isn't performed more often, and this was certainly one such. (There is a recording available by Watkins, Mark Elder and the Halle on the orchestra's own label which I will now be checking out, though it will not be quite the same.)
The concert had opened with Debussy's Children's Corner. I am not the greatest fan of the composer, but Volkov and the CBSO made a persuasive case. Particular highlights included the witty lower string chord that brought Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum to a close and the delicacy of the snow in The Snow is Dancing. It was a good choice programmatically as Debussy's orchestra textures seemed to fit particularly well with the pieces that made up the second half.
Ilan Volkov has, together with the BBC SSO, worked extensively with composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly died last year. I have particularly fond memories of a 2011 Edinburgh Festival concert presenting a triptych of his larger buddhism inspired works, especially Body Mandala. (It says something about the conservatism of Edinburgh audiences that there were several times as many people in the Maltings last night as there were in the Usher Hall for that.) 80 Breaths from Tokyo would have fitted well with them. Taking its inspiration from Zen breathing, where a large group of people breath in unison, it created a series of marvellous effects in the 80 breaths of the title (though I didn't actually count them). It was very pleasing that this structure was so clear to the listener. Sometimes one reads something like this in a programme note and struggles to hear any trace of it, as, indeed, was the case with prism splitting light supposedly in Julian Anderson's string quartet earlier in the afternoon (the clearest piece of description in his rather opaque programme note). Harvey's orchestral climaxes, the way he builds them and then allows them space to hang and fade, rather reminded me of Messiaen as they have done in previous works. This is perhaps unsurprising given both composers have such a strong spiritual aspect to their work. Volkov has recorded many of Harvey's orchestral pieces with the BBC SSO; it is to be hoped that they, or the CBSO, will add this to the list soon.
All through the evening I had felt that Volkov managed the tricky task of balancing a large orchestra in the comparatively small space that is the Maltings rather well. Unfortunately, this was not entirely the case in the Scriabin (or Skryabin, as the programme had it, not a spelling I've come across before, but then I'm not sure there is a definitely correct way to anglicise Russian names - I'll leave that question to those more learned in such matters). They performed his Poem of Ecstasy, which I have heard once before, as it happens also at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, from Salonen and the Philharmonia. I can't improve upon my description of the work then:
It is a somewhat mad piece, generously orchestrated (outside Janáček's Sinfonietta, I'm not sure when I last saw so many trumpets on stage) and complete with another outing for the Usher Hall organ. Oscillating between the sort of ecstasy that one finds in Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the more frantic and energetic kind, it made for a generally thrilling curtain raiser. That said, it did repeat itself a little and would perhaps have been more effective if it were more tightly edited.
While Volkov and the CBSO certainly gave it an energetic performance, the work was not ideally suited to the Maltings. The exuberant organ solo had to be provided by an electric instrument and pretty well got lost anyway. Add to which a few climaxes which were deafeningly loud (I was not alone in this view, spying a few people in rows ahead of me who found it necessary to put their fingers in their ears). It was pretty good fun nonetheless and that minor caveat not enough to detract seriously from what was a first class evening of live music.