Review: BBCSSO/Ilan Volkov/Tchaikovsky’s Manfred

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First published in the Guardian on 8 April, 2016

Maybe it’s perverse to pair Ilan Volkov with a totem of the romantic canon like Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, but it’s fun. The conductor is best known for his ability to unflinchingly navigate the weirdest corners of the avant-garde, and as principal guest conductor his major contribution to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is his tenacious championing of new and experimental music. When it comes to epic romantic heroism, he gives the impression of not having a great deal of patience for all the angst and brooding self-examination.

So it wasn’t surprising that his approach was as brisk and deadpan in Manfred as it is in Michael Finnissy. What was glossed over in evocation and mystery (the Scherzo’s water nymphs were terrifyingly iron-fisted, the finale was a very matter-of-fact orgy) he made up for in grit and white-hot vigour: the first movement’s coda was a thrill. And in the strangest passages, violas left hammering away at some off-kilter ostinato, he egged on the propulsive, the angular, the awkward. This Manfred was no bombastic hero portrait; it was a celebration of Tchaikovsky at his most out-there experimental.

The concert opened with a brief and brazen new work called Nightfires by the young Scottish composer Tom Harrold, in which a solo cello elbows its way out of shrieking trumpets and swaggering double basses to play a frenzied elegy. It’s bold orchestral writing, confident enough to use the brightest of colours and the chunkiest of rhythms. I’d like to hear more. Viviane Hagner was soloist in the fiendish and beautiful Violin Concerto written for her by Unsuk Chin, and she spun out its glassy, implacable lines with the kind of calm resolve and steely grace that only Hagner could.