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.)