The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

BBC Proms 2009: Unsuk Chin world premiere - BBC SSO, Ilan Volkov - Alban Gerhardt

Prom 38. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Ilan Volkov. Alban Gerhardt. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 13, 2009.

The one sentence review here of the Unsuk Chin Cello Concerto is that I bet she, the composer, can sure fix or stir up a mean kim chi. Far more deserves to get said however. The world premiere cello concerto, though on its surface loosely or rhapsodically constructed, is to be reckoned on all levels a fine tour de force.

The first movement, sutitled Aniri (presumably handed down Korean folk short stories) motivically and structurally lays out framework for the following three movements and is The music immediately announces itself as centering on pitch of G-sharp, with hint of cadential motif (hint of ‘Fate’ from Wagner’s Ring, but without similar purpose at all) just almost two minutes in, but ready to expand out considerably beyond.

The opening movement can again be heard as a chain of aniri, quite disparate events; one can enjoy what happens here as all these events mirror, reflect upon one another as indeed perhaps a sequence of variations. After series of sixths and sevenths interlocking with half tones develops through especially the solo part – mixed in with gentle glissandi and firm stretto - somewhat of a theme or tentative version thereof of modal, Eastern intervals develops. It is then repeated, better yet transformed to a simpler model thereof more clearly on the downbeat – directly mimicked by violins on harmonics behind it all.

Ferocious motorically driven toccata breaks out for twelve seconds between the two, hinting at previous motifs used. The quality of this event and of similar occurring is of perhaps being cast under spell by a powerful shaman - something along those lines – better explained from off the peninsula than by me. Simpler toccata in dance like triplets, answered antiphonally by the orchestra follows a second lyrical idea off a fresh G-sharp - crosscut with widely varied flourish. Double-dotted rhythmic development of French overture motif builds, broken by toccata and other interrupting device such as by string of single note tremolo on G-sharp in the flutes, and explosive dissonant jump in orchestral octaves. Getting past midway extended reprise of the concerto’s opening, things develop along similar lines with psychological plus other recall of earlier theme and motif – transformed, manipulated to varied elliptical, perplexing effect.

Toccata of driving rhythm and of simpler variety dominates the three minute scherzo. The trio of Ligeti-esque Bachian motif – manipulation of G Major chord prominent therein - plays itself out, before resuming toccata to end with flourish upward in cello. Harmonics from the soloist then reach for the ethereal or infinite. In almost G Minor, an elegiac slow movement follows, with slow alternation of sustained notes, shifting orchestrally shaped texture and color, before extended rhapsodizing from soloist gets expansively under way. Such then develops into more agitated dotted rhythm with interlocking motif in sixths and sevenths - as encountered in the first movement. Reprise of opening thematic material occurs in harmonics and double-stops again along ‘French overture' lines - following forceful snarl from brass and chromatically descending rumination or sigh in lower registers.

Isolated broken dissonant chords from the orchestra open the finale, followed by light continued elegiac rhapsodizing by the soloist. All spins off into an elaborate solo cadenza with widely varied spiccati, flautandi, glissando, harmonics, rapid runs, combinations thereof. In-between, a most interesting moment in the concerto breaks out of chords antiphonally ricocheting off each other between soloist and orchestra, which then develops into French overture style commentary on such broken shards of harmonic progression. It is interrupted momentarily by wild double stop harmonics glissandi both up and down – fearsome stuff – and then later by double-stop toccata as quickly as it possibly can be played.

A middle section of large gesture, then fragmented, then develops along ascending single line elegy over thin textured accompanying orchestral comments. A sequence of high four(?)-pitch fortissimo clusters in winds then savagely breaks the peace. It practically – at least as it seems at five in the morning down with a sinusitis when I first heard this part – with no warning – makes one in effect unwitting aural witness to a shamanistic exorcism of sorts - amateur in reality at it I hope Chin is at most. Cello solo evaporates at very close on extended very high A-sharp, with ominous low timpani beats as part of insinuation that the music has just merely suspended itself in midair more perhaps than having really ended.

Unsuk Chin made uniquely her own her language for writing this concerto - even with what all extremely valuable she learned so very well largely from Gyorgy Ligeti. Confrontation, agon, between soloist and orchestra, except for numerous various moments thereof, was not necessarily as fulfilling as promised in interview, but could some of this been due to Volkov and BBC Scottish having been caught a bit gun shy of the material in front of them? Here was then also an Ilan Volkov entranced with the shifting colors and nuance in this music - so many beautiful percussion effects - and percussion, winds, brass with which Volkov made the music roar with considerable menace several times too. There is remindful hint here - in terms of confrontation - of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto – with it starting too on its insistent repeated pitch on D. It is in the soloist in which signifies a standing up to what system gets confronted in real life. Metaphorically, such a political motif does not seem to feature near as much to Ms. Chin. Chin also spoke in interview of not wanting the orchestra to overwhelm the soloist; this way, she did not let us down. A very loosely constructed sense of structure eventually replaces itself upon greater familiarity with this piece with sense of how this music's internal workings are, get so intricately worked out.

A more impassioned advocate of this music could not have been found than Alban Gerhardt - as purely an aside his enthusiasm enhanced by opportunities at home in Berlin to taste of Unsuk Chin’s kitchen. With considerable leonine grace, very supple shaping of nuance, commanding just about all tremendous virtuoso effect in such a way that shows off most of all Chin’s compositional inventiveness and just almost all of the notes as well (which she said that she did not demand but that he got just almost entirely anyway), again there could not have been a better advocate of this music. Gerhardt and Volkov, after their very successful Prokofiev – now out on Hyperion (with the Bergen PO under Andrew Litton) - last year and this has turned at the Proms into partnership perhaps that should enthusiastically encourage numerous more opportunities. Let us hope too for speedy compact disc release of this new concerto from same forces as heard here.

The most successful performance of Rite of Spring at the Proms in four or five years followed this, but after Ivan Fischer, Knussen, Maazel, and perhaps Mehta (with Vienna?) as well (2005), this is so much damning with faint praise. And yet the forces of BBC Scottish found themselves, especially violins, just slightly stretched by the material in front of them. Volkov’s command of them was very confident. Except for slight moment of doubt at one or two transitions, command of already near complete good interpretation of Rite that will further tighten over time here was solid. A slightly diaphanous absorption in nature and world of birdsong guides some of his interpretation , with fearless pointing out and playing of high wind descant that usually gets covered up – starting in a concisely yet flexibly stamped out Augurs of Young Girls - in place of just so much bombast. If mildly phlegmatic with a few accents and imposed intervention or two, command of Stravinsky’s rhythms emerged forthright.

Ominous stillness, including that with a cappella muted trumpets and with divisi violin section termoli too (soon before Glorification), which neither could have solely found on their own, through Introduction to Part 2, was riveting. Arabesque of birdsong from flutes during Jeu de rapt was also flexibly incisive. A certain weighted stamp of feet through Rondes de printemps made Volkov something to suggest a cross between Ansermet and from earlier this summer, Thierry Fischer, the latter closer competition with Volkov than most of the conductors invited for this summer’s Stravinsky at the Proms. Gradually building preparation through Rituals of Rival Tribes led into a very menacing Procession of the Sage, answered by incisively tonguing acrid trumpets.

Invocation and Ritual Actions during Part 2 were excellent - with loud menacing growl on low E-Flat for the former and beautifully calibrated divisi tremolo from violins and acridly incisive trumpets in the latter – between fine, directly straightforward accounts of Glorification and finale. The finale, Danse sacrale, rose to more than sufficient conflagration toward end and clearly incisive rhythms for difficult minor stretto explosions to follow.

Ravel’s La Valse, with riskily non-atmospheric but strongly calibrated rocking of opening gesture to it, opened the program. Volkov gave a most suggestive reading, openly revealing seeds of the waltz’s destruction in pointing very succinctly woodwind underpinnings to even the opening of extended sequence of waltzes. BBC Scottish violins only slightly lack both sensuousness of tone for this assignment and technique to fully surmount the closing pages to this. With sensitively gilded harp arpeggio and fine nuance, Volkov found sinuous line and contrast between richly varied waltz episodes. Swooping heaves, gasps for breath uttered by strings under one otherwise pleasantly light episode was plenty sinister; emphasis on a very shamelessly undercutting equally ‘imp of the perverse’ contrabassoon/double bass obbligato to grandiose stretto among episodes was completely apt and right. Harp mirroring clarinet (near halfway through La Valse) in an exquisitely played episode was very lovely, as contrast to all this.

Savage vitality for coda to La Valse was unfettered by untoward show of virtuosity for its own sake. With a leading orchestra in front, such as Volkov now deserves, there would be nothing lacking here. Volkov still delineated so much extremely well, in working out key passages therein at once on two different levels, to disquieting effect.

Prom 40. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov. Rebecca Evans, Caitlin Hulcup, Anthony Dean Griffey, James Rutherford. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 15, 2009.

Orpheus is the most inward looking among Stravinsky’s ballets and thus one of his less popular. With no self-conscious slowness on his part, Ilan Volkov added to correcting the deficit in effective performances of Stravinsky ballets at the Proms this year. The theme of individual against the system (or the masses) certainly is made sublime in this music – or perhaps as hero in attempt to placate, ameliorate confronted system into something more flexible than is its wont. Amidst the pan-diatonic and thus somewhat removed, abstract writing for strings, Volkov injected some opulence into the intoning, intimations in harp and also woodwinds that into an atmosphere of neo-classical plasticity infused some not untoward romantic warmth. Some wildness of what is primitive in the midst of all this became immediately, simply evident as directly put forth in the winds in Air de danse, played with fine aplomb. Equally fine example was the incisively played fast section of ‘Pas des Furies.’ Suffusion of light first pervaded the air with bright luminosity in contrasting D Major fanfare for violins in first Air de danse, then subtly in Symphony-in-C-like trumpet duet goaded driving progression in the strings for Eurydice's rescue (as though having been dropped off along Wilshire or on Sunset Blvd).

Well played suggestive concertmaster solo intertwined so well here into much woodwind dominated writing therein. Duet for oboes that forms Orpheus’s lament (Air de danse) over loss of Eurydice hearkened here well of Ann Trulove’s so similar “Has love no voice?” Volkov has got to pick Rake's Progress - written hardly a year apart from Orpheus - up soon if he has not already - and in better production of it than gets revived at Royal Opera for this coming season.

One senses in this music, as pointed out in terms of sense of loss conveyed, even during more animated passages and with no hint of bathos here, a composer groping to find his way or some new way out of an impasse (of mostly interwar neo-classicism). The preceding catastrophe to writing this for him could no longer make continuing the trend possible for long. An exclusiveness, sterility that to the level it took itself in the America where this composer lived at the time had to grip this composer too as to where he could possibly take things from here.

And yet Orpheus somehow in a small transitional niche it helps occupy, is sublime in its own unique way. It is then perhaps not one to yield up what secrets it may have in store for its listeners all too readily in its somewhat deceptive simplicity of feeling and design. The plasticity of form and expression here help indicate - beautifully understood here – something of the timelessness, the utter adaptability of myth to even the culture of our generation, our time.

A soft-spoken Ilan Volkov – as I have heard him speak of this just now - made more of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, even as somewhat musically detached approach he took to it here than any amount of narration – very misguided device and so used in Fidelio the other night – one reason I then took no interest in reviewing it. Whereas Daniel Barenboim is, on music though seldom good at speaking about it, Volkov’s equal by now in dialectical thinking, here one got more uninterrupted effective musical thought than in Fidelio the following week. Volkov spoke of, in my own words here, the fury unleashed by Ode an Freude not being able to be contained sufficiently to indicate anywhere near sure guarantee of cause for optimism for what lay any great length of time ahead. In somewhat wily manner, Volkov moved through the standard luftpausen that so often too monumentalize closing phrases to Ode an Freude and gave heady sense of something indeed breaking out in a way, but in doing so open-ended - of our not being sure where things lead. The sturm und drang of the first movement is no distant memory at summation of this and should not be.

After two half-hour Stravinsky ballets, but without hint of stiff concession to ‘period,’ this was quite a breezy account of the Beethoven Ninth, lasting barely over an hour. However detached and thus somewhat exposed a few moments in not making quite all connection in voice leading that a more truly convincing Romantic account of it will accomplish – mostly impossible now - the freshness of Volkov’s way and of his thinking outside of the box spoke for itself eloquently here. Thinking out of all musical processes occurring within was clearly evident, if not quite thoroughly how to see it all carried out quite enitrely right; convince me however you’ve found a perfect Beethoven Ninth from the past forty years and I will give you sixty-four thousand dollars. It does not exist.

A questioning, yearning sense to Volkov’s interpretation - stopping short of including mysticism typical of Furtwangler - spoke here beautifully for itself. It so infused especially a somewhat driven first movement and equally so a truly flowing, freely expressive, not qunyielding slow movement. One thing for Volkov to correct is the clipped way with the opening dotted octaves of the Scherzo, but that mysterious to me, he developed into sprightly, accurate shaping of what followed the opening motif. He did so conspicuously better than I heard Belohlavek or Jansons do in 2007 - year of two Proms Beethoven Ninths instead of one. Volkov made perfectly succinct the marking of pulsation underneath folk-inspired idea in the winds. A quite speedy way – variations therein not quite interlocking tumbling over each other (quite so speedily) as in Unsuk Chin - with the Ode to Joy, as especially at the end of it, was an ideal way to go with how Volkov had preceded playing the Ninth.

Best among the soloists were James Rutherford and Rebecca Evans, Evans especially in taking on what is assignment for more dramatic voice with the security and confident, sunny expression of being just merely a lyric still able to take it on – to perhaps reminding one of Lucia Popp twenty years back. Weakest was one among two most familiar names in a somewhat bleated, Schreier-esque account of his part - Anthony Dean Griffey, no less. With fine choral contributions, one was not quite gripped with what one would call a great Ninth, but still beautifully fitting conclusion to what had come right before - this in midst of music-making on Beethoven symphonies that during the past generation has ranged from bombastic to mindlessly doctrinaire. Volkov’s so openly frank, guileless approach became one, including at the Proms, most welcome.

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