Prom 58: varied narratives from the BBCSSO and Ilan Volkov

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 ( Pie?ni mi?osne 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

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, Pie?ni 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

KrÛl 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

Leoö Jan·?ek 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
?ech (the librettist of The Excursions of Mr Brou?ek to the Moon),
and while the composer’s notes identify specific instruments with
characters in the text, Jan·?ek didn’t hesitate to rearrange the musical
narrative to suit his own purpose.

?ech’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 Jan·?ek 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

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

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), Jan·?ek – 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

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

product_title=Prom 58: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Georgia Jarman

Photo credit: Claire McAdams