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S & H Prom Review

PROM 26: Weir, Schumann, Shostakovich; Heinrich Schiff (cello); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov. Royal Albert Hall, August 7th, 2003 (CC)

The young conductor Ilan Volkov is clearly making quite an impression with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (he took over from Osmo Vänskä at the beginning of this year). The standard of playing was quite remarkable, in a carefully considered and balanced programme. Nice also to have a contemporary work balanced by an underplayed masterpiece in the first half, with Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth in the second.

Judith Weir’s 17-minute The Welcome Arrival of Rain (2001-2), inspired by a passage from the Hindu Bhagavata Purana, celebrates the sudden fertility the monsoon brings in its wake in India. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and here received its UK premiere. Volkov conducted clearly, demonstrating an acute ear for detail. There were some perhaps surprising influences on Weir’s language. The Janácek of the Sinfonietta kept on rearing up; an evocation of open spaces in long-breathed melodies ushered in the spirit of Copland.

Right from the beginning’s jewelled brass fanfares, the high standard of performance was evident. The orchestra was well disciplined and Volkov’s conducting was clear and confident. The brass section, frequently in the foreground here, excelled, particularly the trumpets. But, although the stopwatch claimed 17 minutes, the piece seemed so much longer due to an adherence to over-repetition of musical material.

In complete contrast, Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (1850) emerged triumphant. The piece is still woefully under-rated and under-performed, so it was wonderful to welcome Heinrich Schiff to the Albert Hall to champion it (he has recorded it with the BPO and Haitink, currently on Philips 470 250-2). Schiff’s tone was projected with perfect judgement, carrying the lyricism easily to the back of the hall. His playing of the slow movement was extremely heartfelt, as tender as one could possibly be in this vast acoustic space. Throughout both of these movements, however, there was a nagging doubt that the orchestra had not been convinced of the piece’s worth. The playing was certainly neat, but it was not completely committed. Maybe those (few) passages that Schiff could not save (occasionally the music can meander) put them off.

The finale revealed Schiff to be less technically secure (admittedly it is fiendish). But in the final analysis, this was a memorable reading of a piece that deserves more frequent airing.

Interesting to note that the programme notes for Shostakovich’s Tenth were by Gerard McBurney: I have heard McBurney give a pre-concert talk on this symphony, and many of the salient, and perceptive, points were reproduced here. The actual performance brought the very best out of the BBC’s Scottish orchestra. Initially, the tempo for the first movement (marked ‘Moderato’) seemed too fast, despite the sensitive handling. But it fitted in perfectly with Volkov’s long-range interpretation, which brought some truly superb solo clarinet playing along the way. In fact, Volkov seemed to keep the finale in his sights throughout. Only the third movement seemed to display a loss of energy; the second movement was a virtuosic parody, fast and furious (the violins were extremely well-drilled).

Two triumphs and a disappointment sums up this Prom, my first of this season.

Colin Clarke

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