Saturday 7 March 2009

Harvey and Bruckner - Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Until two weeks ago, I hadn't got over to Glasgow for anything in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2008/9 season (I was very sad to have missed From the Canyons to the Stars.... last year, a favourite Messiaen piece of mine; however, I couldn't really pass up the Edinburgh leg of my brother's wedding). I wanted to get to the Beethoven ninth at the start of the season too - but Thursdays have become rather congested this year. However, like buses, you wait ages and then suddenly you're in City Halls twice in two weeks.

This time round the orchestra's outgoing chief conductor, Ilan Volkov, was on the podium for a programme that once again combined the romantic (in Bruckner's unfinished ninth symphony) and the modern (with the Scottish premiere of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings). Those who want to actually hear the results, rather than read about it, can, until next Friday, catch the full concert on the BBC iPlayer.

I don't think I've heard anything by Harvey before and Speakings, for orchestra and live electronics, which had its UK premiere in last year's Proms, is certainly rather different. The orchestra is augmented with electronics from IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic/Music, founded by Pierre Boulez in 1970) and two rows of the stalls had been given over to them, Harvey and their equipment. However, it did not seem to be the use of synthesisers that I might have expected. Instead, Harvey often seems to use them to augment orchestral instruments, blending with them or extending notes. Mixed with this are the baby noises of the first section and the Gregorian chanting of the final section. The climax at the end of the middle section was particularly powerful. It was an interesting and compelling work.

The orchestra showed their aptitude for Bruckner two and a half years ago in Bruckner cycle that was one of the backbones of the 2006 Edinburgh festival. Then they gave a superb sixth with Donald Runnicles and a less compelling second with Volkov (in the next few weeks I should get round to posting the archive reviews). At the time, I wondered how much of this difference was down to the work, the second, in my view, is not one of the composer's greatest achievements and it should be noted that the playing of the orchestra was excellent. Thursday's reading of the ninth confirmed that view. It was little short of masterful.

The first thing that really stood out was how unmannered and understated Volkov's conducting was. A clear beat, something which, during my recent forays playing the trombone (badly) in an amateur orchestra, I've been very appreciative of, but little of the leaping around the podium that marks some in his profession. However, he seems to have no difficulty getting the orchestra to do what he wants and to play with impressive variety. Part of this may be in his face: I was sitting quite close to the stage, in the raised seating area at orchestra level, and every now and again he turned enough for me to catch a glimpse. I won't try to describe the looks, since it would probably take more than a thousand words, but given the reaction they gave me in the audience, I'm sure they had an effect on the players.

Volkov started slowly and, in the company of the best Bruckner interpreters, managed to avoid even the slightest hint of repetitiveness that his works can sometimes have. He seemed content to just let the music speak: alternately beautiful, angst-ridden, thrilling or dramatic. He was helped by the superb playing of the orchestra in bringing out the richness of the score (the basses stand out, not so much because they were playing better, everyone was excellent, but because I was particularly close to them, giving their entries an extra oomph). It was captivating from the start to the haunting final bars.

The post concert coda was to be the orchestra's principal trumpet together with IRCAM and I was sorely tempted. However, I wanted to leave with the Bruckner ringing in my head. I think that's the problem with these codas - they are often highly appealing, but if the big work of the night has been done right, somehow you often don't feel like anything more. Perhaps we'll get it on the radio though.

I should make one final note. I've spoken out before about conductors speaking before concerts. The last two BBC SSO concerts have been introduced by the orchestra's marketing manager Stephen Duffy and it hasn't annoyed me in the same way, or, really, at all. Thinking about it, I suspect the reason is that he does so in a manner that is short and to the point, and not rambling for several minutes without really saying anything of note, as has sometimes been the case.

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