Prom 16: Drama, modernism, philosophy and grandeur from Ilan Volkov and the BBCSSO

A wide-ranging programme, which incorporated romantic era staples such as Pictures at an Exhibition counterbalanced by the world première of Julian Anderson’s sparkling new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, was delivered with technical brilliance and measured artistry by the excellent BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its understated, somewhat professorial maestro Ilan Volkov.

Hamlet, the first of two Liszt symphonic tones poems in this evening’s prom opened the performance and immediately created the desired atmosphere – tense and uncertain via the use of a hand-stopped horn. Lush strings and sonorous bass passages drove the music forward and it soon became clear that this is a very well drilled orchestra – clear observance of dynamic markings and accents, tutti passages, dialogue between brass & percussion illuminated the fact.

The Imaginary Museum is a fascinating work by Julia Anderson, seemingly focused on painting a series of highly imaginative soundscapes with smatterings of Ravel-esque virtuosity flashing around the orchestra. Indeed, in conjuring up the kaleidoscopic sounds of Janacek’s well, it felt as though the composer had elaborated variations on Gaspard de le nuit. The work had been written specially for Steven Osborne and the relish with which he attacked what must have been tremendously difficult passages were executed flawlessly – most impressive stuff.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave) followed, a haunting string section opening the piece. Written in 1882, the music was reflective of the strange and curious music which Liszt was writing towards the end of his life. Heavily chromatic, with a profound and searching quality, this was in fact the composer’s last completed orchestral work. Written in three movements (The Cradle, The Struggle for Existence and To the Grave: The Cradle of the Life to Come) no fault could be found with Volkov’s direction. The tone was clear and bright, synchronisation was perfect and the energetic bursts required to reflect the struggle of the second movement was delivered by aplomb. Volkov is a very understated conductor. He rarely makes large, sweeping or demonstrative gestures – only applying them sparingly and only then when the music calls for that level of emotion. The style he employs is much more subtle, sophisticated and carefully crafted. There is no iron-fisted Karajan-esque control of the orchestra – it’s a different kind of control that carries a deft touch. There was something strangely ethereal about this piece – it seemed as if Liszt was commenting on the immortal life of the soul.

To conclude matters and considering that two of the previous pieces had been Proms premières, it was time to treat the audience to an old faithful – an item that felt familiar, comforting and which carried a host of familiar melodies. Step forward Modest Mussorgsky, composer of the famous piano composition – held by some such as Sviatoslav Richter to be the most important composition for solo piano in the entire history of Russian music, to guide us through that series of Viktor Hartmann images – many of them now sadly lost. We must give credit in equal measure to the brilliant orchestration of Maurice Ravel. Not only does he bring to life many of the more vivid caricatures such as Gnomus and The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, but made some truly inspired choices of which instruments to assign the primary melody to – the mournful alto saxophone solo from The Old Castle is especially befitting.

As we continued our aural journey through the gallery, this outstanding orchestra continued to choose their dynamics, tempi and harmonies with perfect judgement, successfully conjuring up varied images of yesteryear. Arriving at the final grandiose piece of the suite, Volkov threw caution to the wind and perhaps for the first time this evening, thrashing wildly at his amassed troops, demanded more noise, more pride. The assembled players duly obliged and built a crescendo worthy of closing any evening’s entertainment. As the music swelled and the famous Russian bells jostled and jangled for supremacy, one was reminded of the truly extraordinary force that is classical music and its inherent power for good.