Arts & Culture Music

Royal Albert Hall A Monday Night Prom – 24 July 2022

  • July 27, 2023
  • 3 min read
Royal Albert Hall A Monday Night Prom – 24 July 2022

Ivan Volkov has been closely connected with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for all of this century both as Chief and Principal Guest Conductor and their relaxed familiarity together means that they have a level of trust which transmits easily to the audience. His conducting style is clear and unfussy, without the need to show off in order to engage either players or listeners. This pays instant dividends. Every phrase is given space to develop but the entries are crisp and precise, the familiar tunes invested with all the romance Tchaikovsky’s last symphony exudes. It is unlikely that he really meant this to be his last work but it does deal with death and remembrance of times past in a way that has lent itself to legends. In reality, its late 19th century exploration of death has much in common with Mahler’s a few years later. The two composers not only respected each other; Tchaikovsky much preferred Mahler’s conducting to his own.

This Prom performance took a while to find its stride, though. The first movement was immaculate but perhaps lacked the final ounce of pathos that gives the symphony its nickname – until the gorgeous clarinet solo at its heart, played meltingly: I presume by the orchestra’s Principal, Yann Ghiro. Once we were into the rest of the movements, everything slotted into place and the tragic forces began to stir. The BBC SSO’s brass section was superb – emphatic without being raucous – and the strings knew how to makes us ache in the finale: so musically simple, so emotionally complex.

That the Pathétique symphony was slow to take off was hardly surprising. The orchestra had delivered Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the previous evening and begun their Monday Prom with a half hour BBC Commission from the American composer, Catherine Lamb, now in her early forties. Lamb is one of the current generation of West Coast minimalists, in her case paring the music down to its barest essentials.

She is said to have a ‘deep interest in the fundamental nature of sound’, which may be true but in this piece, written over ten years apparently, that nature failed to reveal itself. Portions Transparent/Opaque is in three sections but I could discern little difference between them or those two adjectives in the music. An intermnable succession of chords, rarely moving faster than a semibreve, might have worked in a Californian immersion tank while stoned but stretched patience cruelly in the Royal Albert Hall. It’s rare that the Proms commission a true dud but this was one. I hope Lamb’s other music does more to justify her reputation.

Image: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ivan Volkov

Photographer: Susi Burns
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Simon Mundy

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