BBC Proms reviews

Prom 24: BBC SSO/Volkov – Sibelius, Britten, Varése, Debussy @ Royal Albert Hall, London

31 July 2007

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Another day, another Prom, and yet more rows upon rows of empty seats in the Royal Albert Hall. It is dispiriting to see attendances so low this year for, from what I have seen and what I have read, standards are consistently high. Prom 24 boasted a thoughtful programme, most notably featuring three Proms Firsts (works that have been given their UK or world premieres at the festival in the past).

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are flourishing under the inspirational direction of their Chief Conductor Ilan Volkov. This programme began with Sibelius’ symphonic poem Tapiola, a work named after the Finnish God of the forests and a work replete with tense, brooding harmonies and gripping contrasts of texture and style. Volkov drew from the strings a dewy-eyed sensuality at the start and a tender warmness at the conclusion. Under Volkov’s expert baton, the work’s teasing stream of variations tensely expanded and contracted before the thrillingly brazen brass and timpani climax. Was it perhaps a tad clinical at times? If so, the playing was too detailed and technically outstanding for me to mind at all.

Volkov also managed to convince me that Britten’s youthful Piano Concerto, revised in 1945, is one of the unsung masterpieces of its time. The composer uses traditional forms – Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu, March – with great irony, for the work reflects the unrest and uprooted existence of late 1930s Europe, when it was composed. The scoring is seductive and the writing for piano gripping, with moments of introspection brushing shoulders with tumbling runs and sequences of the greatest virtuosity. Coupled with the tight ensemble was the solo playing of Steven Osborne, whose touch became ever tauter and nimbler the further in that we went. Perhaps pedalling could have been tightened at times, but it was still a magical, magical performance that set the interval bars alight.

The third work on the menu was Varése’ Ecuatorial, a work completed in 1934. It’s a strange composition, with a bass voice or bass choir – we had the latter – singing chants from the text Popol Vuh (also the name of my favourite German rock band!) above a spare but strongly stated instrumental backing. This was a thoroughly prepared and fascinating performance, with the percussion and piano stage left, the brass and organ stage right. In the middle stood eerily swooping electronic instruments. Textural contrast and conversation were key. Six bass voices from the choir Tenebrae battled manfully with the deliberately idiosyncratic writing, aimed at the basement of the voice.

And finally, Debussy’s audience-favourite La Mer was treated to a nimble performance, athletic in the trilling woodwind and breezy strings, stirring in the resplendent horn lines and stormy climaxes. The whole emerged as startlingly sensual and shimmering, given the venue and its acoustic. Thrilling stuff, and watched by a half empty hall.

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