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Reviews

02 Sep 2019

Prom 58: varied narratives from the BBCSSO and Ilan Volkov

There are many ways and means to tell a story: through prose, poetry, sounds, pictures, colours, movement.

Prom 58: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Georgia Jarman

Photo credit: Claire McAdams

 

After two capacity-audience Proms earlier this season under their Chief Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra returned to the Royal Albert Hall for an inventively programmed concert conducted by Ilan Volkov, their Principal Guest Conductor, in which ‘narratives’ of various kinds were to the fore.

Karol Szymanowski turned to Persian mysticism for his orchestral song-cycle, Love Songs of Hafiz Op.26 ( Pieꞩni miłosne Hafiza), his interest in the poet from Shiraz having been awakened when he came across a volume of Hans Bethge’s translations of Hafiz’ poetry during a visit to Vienna in spring 1911. And, though the presence of oriental elements in Szymanowski’s music is indicative of the general aesthetic interest in ‘The Orient’ evident in the work of Western artists working in diverse spheres at the turn of the 20 th century, the texts chosen for this cycle, and those of Rumi that found a more ‘religiously elevated’ expression in Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, suggest that the composer responded in a deeply personal way to the Sufi concept of a union with God through the ecstatic experience that they offered.

Szymanowski’s ‘orientalism’ is more instinctive than scientific and is integrated in these songs within a markedly eclectic range of influences. Following the death of his father in 1904, Szymanowski had spent seven years travelling through Europe and North Africa, but while some argue that the influence of the muezzins’ calls to prayer that he heard in Tunisia can be detected in Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin Op.42 (1918, Pieśni muezina szalonego) there is no evidence from the composer’s musical notebooks of any direct recording or transcription. Rather, one senses a more delicate infusion of oriental colour, gesture and harmony into a heady mix of Wagnerian melopoeia, the infinitely extended yearning for fulfilment of Straussian Romanticism, and an Impressionist interplay of colour and light tinged with Arabian modes and tropes - forming a heady perfume designed to capture the elusive erotic power of Hafiz’ poetry.

American soprano Georgia Jarman displayed the same freely soaring lyricism and sumptuous richness that I admired in 2015 when she performed the role of Roxana in the ROH’s Król Roger . Her powerful soprano luxuriated in the orchestral luminosity, sinking in, sailing above. Perhaps there was not the sort of detailed attention to the text that a lieder singer might offer, but the sensuality of the sound was more than recompense, and was complemented by rapturous orchestral textures, as at the opening of the first song, ‘Desires’, where divided strings, two harps, piano, celeste and woodwind created a shimmering, scintillating bed of sound above which Jarman floated a pure expression of longing: “I wish I were a lake’s clear depths/and you were the sunlight playing on the waves.” Volkov sustained a transparent, magical quality, as if the music were an elixir, designed to transfix.

The falling glissandi of ‘The Infatuated East Wind’ segued into a swaying, teasing dance, as Jarman conveyed the solipsistic self-indulgence of the poet-speaker’s reveries and delighted in the ecstatic Straussian swoops. The delicate playout of harps, celeste and horn transmuted into the timpani’s urgent tattoo in ‘Dance’: there was a barely repressed, almost menacing, erotic pulse here, which was not quelled until the stillness of ‘Pearls of My Soul’, in which piano, celeste, bells and solo violin conjured the pearl’s precious, shining halo with exquisite loveliness, its glimmer ever more intoxicating as low clarinet trills, muted horn pedals and solo string pizzicatos hypnotised us in this strange land, until Jarman’s soprano found release in an effortlessly floated top Bb which teasingly dipped a semitone in a closing curl: “I would cast their snowy riches at your flighty little feet!”

Volkov established an impassioned restlessness in ‘Eternal Youth’ as Jarman’s wide-spanning vocal shapes evoked the youthful passion burning in the old poet’s heart. A horn melody that might have come from the pen of Richard Strauss closed this song, while a meandering clarinet solo that might have floated over sandy Arabian plains peeked through the instrumental oscillations and trembles propelling ‘Your Voice’ to its rhapsodic heights. The brazen ‘Drinking Song’ - all rude nose-thumbs from piccolo flute and clarinet, defiant trombones, spiky pizzicatos and reckless piano tumbles - also brought Strauss to mind: the merry pranks of one Till Eulenspiegel this time. Volkov encouraged the horns’ shamelessness, while keeping the orchestral exploits under control, and Jarman had no trouble imposing her own irrepressible eulogy, “Wine’s spell is life! Fill my cup!”

With ‘Hafiz’ Grave’, decorum was re-imposed, giving the first flute, oboe and clarinet, and leader Laura Samuel a chance to sing their own sad, strange song, and bringing the cycle to rest in mystery and mysticism, with a transfiguring image of the flowers on Hafiz’ grave, “perfumed like a rose garden”.

Leoš Janáček was no stranger to storytelling, not only in his operas but also through instrumental means, without words, in his string quartets and symphonic poems. The Fiddler’s Child (1913), subtitled a ‘ballad for orchestra’, was introduced to the UK by Henry Wood in 1924, but this was its first hearing at the Proms. Though based on a poem by Svatopluk Čech (the librettist of The Excursions of Mr Brouček to the Moon), and while the composer’s notes identify specific instruments with characters in the text, Janáček didn’t hesitate to rearrange the musical narrative to suit his own purpose.

Čech’s tale tells of an interaction between the supernatural and the living: an old village fiddler dies, leaving a child to be cared for by the village. The old woman charged with the task, hangs the fiddle on the wall of her cottage. One night she is awakened by a vision of the fiddler who sings to his child, enticing him with promises of happiness in the heavens. The woman makes a sign of the cross and falls asleep again. In the morning the child is found dead, the fiddle gone. The tripartite structure is ignored by Janáček who focuses not on the individuals but on the social milieu and concerns. There is no depiction of the old woman or her climactic nocturnal awakening; instead the suffering of the villagers dominates the score, expressed by the divided violas - here placed to Volkov’s right and offering some Romantic fullness in an otherwise lean and dramatic reading. Volkov drew forth the melancholy and the bitterness of the score, the latter present in the depiction of the omnipresent and all-powerful magistrate by the lower strings, bass clarinet and trombone. Volkov’s reading was confident and well-shaped; and The Fiddler’s Child offered us a welcome opportunity to hear Laura Samuel impersonate the dead fiddler whose reflections - by turns solemn, angry and, briefly, bright and hopeful - permeate the entire score. Playing with brusque energy and spiritedness, Samuel was a persuasive guide through the tale.

It’s a brave composer who entitles one of their works Nuages, so directly does the word point one to the first of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Like Debussy, Linda Catlin Smith is, in her own words, interested in ‘harmony, melody and timbre. I want to create music that is intimate and reflective … slow music allows greater complexity in terms of harmony, at least to my ear. I think of slower music as a way of steeping oneself in thought’. Unlike Debussy, though, to judge by Nuages, she is less interested in rhythm and form. This fifteen-minute symphonic poem unfolded (drifted?) with a delicate dreaminess - all divisi gentleness, tender gestures, fragments of melody - alleviated by occasional intimations of energy and purpose: percussive rolls, a tuba theme, pizzicato vividness.

Again, Smith’s own words encapsulate as well as any others her intent and effect of the orchestral ‘clouds’: ‘the veiled haze of strings, tangled thicket of woodwinds, or soft fog of percussion. I was interested in a quiet lushness, as in the weaving of light and shade in an overgrown garden; occasionally the work completely thins out, like a clearing in the surroundings, a pause in thought.’ If the resultant meandering shifts lacked any clear form or direction, it was not the case that they did not intimate a narrative of sorts - albeit a rather ineffable one that unfolded with protean elusiveness but not without moments of captivating coloristic beauty.

The ‘narrative’, if we may call it that, in Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is of a national and personal nature: completed in 1872, the ‘Little Russian’ was Tchaikovsky’s attempt to find his own symphonic voice by producing a nationalist work in the manner of the Might Five - and commentators have identified his use of three Ukrainian folk tunes, ‘Down by Mother Volga’, ‘Spin O My Spinner’, and ‘The Crane’, though often the melodic idiom is more characterised by folky gestures than by direct quotation.

Volkov led the BBCSSO in a performance of conviction and colour: indeed, the positioning of the eight double basses on a raised tier behind the woodwind seemed a declaration of belief and the BBCSSO played with vigour and flair. Both textures and tempi were balanced, and Volkov kept the emphasis on forward movement rather than weightiness. The Scherzo had plenty of character, while the final Allegro vivace was athletic and exuberant - though perhaps Volkov might have let the percussionists off the leash a little more at the close so that gong, cymbals, bass drum and timpani could really romp flamboyantly home. The string tone was appealing and, if not radiantly Romantic, then rounded and clean, while there some lovely eloquent woodwind playing in the Andantino marziale.

Perhaps the disappointingly numerous empty seats at the RAH were a result of the various transport issues that weekend for those travelling to and from the capital; or perhaps this interesting programme seemed too ‘rarified’ and unfamiliar for some? But, this was an unwaveringly engaging performance from the BBCSSO and Volkov. It was a pity that too many in the Hall could not restrain their coughing and shuffling so that we could enjoy it in a fittingly respectful manner.

Claire Seymour

Prom 58: Linda Catlin Smith: Nuages (BBC commission: world premiere), Janáček - The Fiddlers Child (Henry Wood Novelties: UK premiere, 1924), Szymanowski - Love Songs of Hafiz Op.26, Tchaikovsky - Symphony No.2 in C minor Op.17 (‘Little Russian’)

Georgia Jarman (soprano), Ilan Volkov (conductor), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London; Sunday 1st September 2019.

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