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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

PROM 24: Sibelius, Abrahmsen, Brahms, Nelson Freire, piano, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 1 August, 2005 (TJH)

 

 

Sibelius – Symphony No. 3 in C major

Hans Abrahamsen – Four Pieces for Orchestra

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major

 

 

Sibelius’ symphonies may be considered rather chilly, but what better way to warm up an audience than with the Third?  Hearing Ilan Volkov’s reading on Monday night, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it seemed like such an obvious choice: the potential energy of that staccato opening figure – crisply articulated by the orchestra’s lower strings – seemed rife with possibility, and before long the neo-Classical figurations had blossomed into a magnificent Sibelian tutti, with full-bodied strings and solid, well-played horns.  The second movement had a slow, almost trance-like pulse to it, with an element of tragedy strong enough to overcome the fleeting superimposition of Terrega’s Gran Vals by a chirrupy mobile phone.  And although the third movement grew a little less organically than the first two, there were some enormously exciting moments, played with clear relish by the Scottish players.

 

To start a concert with a symphony is certainly not unheard of, but ending with a concerto is far less common.  The problem is one of weight and balance, and it takes some very creative programming to come up with a solution.  Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto fit the bill perfectly, however: in four movements, with some of the most sublime orchestral writing ever to grace a concerto, it is almost a symphony in its own right.  The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire certainly gave the piano part a symphonic reading, creating a second orchestra from the force of his playing and some subtle reinforcement of the sustain pedal.  At 61, he did not really look the part of hero-pianist, but he certainly sounded like it in the first two movements, perfectly complemented by a taut, well-rehearsed BBCSSO.  In the third movement, principal cellist Rudi de Groote made a lovely second soloist, and it was touching to watch Freire enjoying this music so much even as he waited for his turn to contribute.  Despite the intrusion of an unwelcome third soloist – another mobile – it was as gorgeous an Andante as they come, and the performance was rounded off with a weightless finale, all grace and good humour.

 

In between symphony and concerto, and in another reversal of tradition, Volkov had managed to squeeze in a UK premiere before the interval.  The Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, for whom Volkov has been something of a champion, had suffered a terrible loss of creative confidence in the 1990s, a case of composer’s block that lasted nearly a decade.  In the last few years though, he has made something of a comeback, and the Four Pieces for Orchestra were amongst the first products of this artistic rekindling.  Arranged and expanded from four of his Ten Studies for Piano from 1983, the pieces are an effective and intriguing blend of modern techniques with late-Romantic gestures.  The first movement could be Verklärte Nacht smeared across the page while the ink was still wet; the second was a crescendo of volume and dissonance that started out noisily and only grew in intensity.  Though the orchestration could have been lightened in the Debussy-esque third piece (there was a disproportionately massive orchestra required considering the brevity of these pieces), the fourth piece was more effective, with a low flute note throbbing relentlessly throughout, as in Ravel’s Le Gibet.  The pieces’ many moments of stillness drew genuine silence from the audience, demonstrating just what a gifted communicator of new music Volkov has become.  He conducted with no less seriousness than he conducted Sibelius or Brahms, and for that he must be considered a friend to all contemporary composers – and indeed audiences.

 

 

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



 

 

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