BBC Proms reviews

Prom 45: BBC Scottish SO/Volkov @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 August 2008

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

The second of Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s proms was a demanding but stimulating exploration of the relationship between music and sonic articulation. The Royal Albert Hall was turned into a huge sound chamber, with every combination of acoustic and electronic music represented, featuring Jonathan Harvey’s new work, Messiaen’s final composition and two pieces by the grand-daddy of them all, Edgard Varése.

An evening of three halves, this was a long and well-structured concert. Even a purely acoustic work like Messiaen’s Concert quatre, finished after the composer’s death by his wife Yvonne Loriod, was a reflection on sound. The composer’s life-long obsession with bird-song exploded here in a positive aviary of very specific imitation.

In the case of Harvey’s World Premiere, Speakings for orchestra and live electronics, it was the faltering beginnings of human speech that underpinned the work, although as it progressed through a slightly long 30 minutes, it was music that won the day. His earlier sound tape, Mortuos plango, vivos voco for eight-channel tape, conjured up by the IRCAM engineers in 1980, deals solely in sound but nods back to the musical world with snatches of a boy chorister juxtaposed against insistent bell-strokes whizzing round the auditorium with vivid depth.

As Speakings integrates live and recorded performance, the final work, Varése’s Déserts breaks up the components, delivering units of each in succession, in one of the French composer’s most exciting works. Like Mortuos, Varése’s Poéme électronique, written for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, is purely electronic; fascinating on CD but much more vivid flung around the RAH’s considerable sound system.

A further variant was provided with the opening work, Harvey’s 1994 Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and digital audio tape, which also combined acoustic and electronic but here involving just a single live instrument. So, every permutation seemed to be covered, offering insights into how technology and performers can work together or set each other off.

The merit of individual works was maybe disguised in the process but brought together in this way, they made a satisfying whole. With so much reliance on technology and predominance of solo performers in the first part Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Emily Beynon (flute), Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe) and Danjulo Ishizaka (cello) all splendid conductor Ilan Volkov was in danger of melting into the background but there was always the sense of a firm hand on the rudder.

An enthralling exercise in listening.

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