Review: BBCSSO, Ilan Volkov, Seven Stars’ Symphony

First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2016

The Seven Stars’ Symphony hasn’t been performed in the UK since the 1960s and isn’t exactly a pops classic elsewhere, so this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert was a rare outing. It was a persuasive account — clear, attentive, soft-grained, unsentimental — but Seven Stars is still a weird piece. It’s a series of fond and fairly abstract musical portraits composed in 1933 by Charles Koechlin, a Parisian who was friends with Satie and Debussy, in which each movement is dedicated to a star of silent film or the early talkies.

There are some ear-catching harmonies and instrumental combinations (harpsichord, high violin and solo cymbal, anyone?) but what’s most intriguing is how the portraits aren’t glossy caricatures but somehow capture the actors off-guard, off-screen, in private repose. Emil Jannings is craggy and stern; Greta Garbo is summoned by an eerie little tune on ondes Martenot and earthy flutes. There’s something wistful about the quiet intangibility of the whole thing, as if even at this early stage in celebrity culture Koechlin sensed the lonely flip-side to fame.

Conductor Ilan Volkov treated Seven Stars’ as he does any score that’s put in front of him: with efficiency, verve and a determination to give whatever’s worthwhile in the music a fair hearing. He has a marvellous knack of making the saccharine seem straight-up, the complex seem no-big-deal and the hackneyed seem fresh. He opened the programme with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas and found new menace in it — a hushed, deadpan brutality in that jumpy tune. Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto is a riot of squealing, scurrying sounds but Kari Kriikku delivered it no sweat; Chin wrote the piece for this extraordinary Finnish clarinetist and it is totally him. Nobody else could make the instrument bend, flutter and groan like he does. Talk about musical portraiture.