Proms 45/46, Mullova/Barley/BBCSO/Volkov/Joseph, Royal Albert Hall (4/5, 3/5)

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The Independent Culture

Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley are at once the least likely musical combination, and also among the most fertile.

She fledged in Moscow as a star violinist before courageously defecting (at the height of the Cold War) to the West, where her immaculate playing earned her the nickname Ice Maiden. Barley is distinguished from other classical cellists through his hang-loose, collaborative approach and his explorations of jazz.

Married life has seen them gradually influencing each other’s style: Mullova’s new Cd ‘The Peasant Girl’ - on which she is accompanied by the Matthew Barley Ensemble - formed the basis for the second of these Proms, and shows where their collaboration has now got to.

But the main focus of their early Prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov was the world premiere of a ‘Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra’ specially written for them by Thomas Larcher, one of the most interesting composers alive. This work employed a small ‘concertino’ ensemble – including Larcher himself on prepared piano – to interpose an extra layer of colour between soloists and orchestra, and it also included improvisation.

From the cello’s opening rumination – dissipated in a scatter of high-percussion stardust – the piece carried Larcher’s indelible personal stamp. The musical world he created seemed constantly on the point of disintegration, but always into beauty, never ugliness. One caught brief glimpses of late Beethoven and tintinnabular Part, all worked into a tapestry of delightful complexity. The concertino allowed a variety of soloists to emerge, as well as fiddle and cello, with Christof Dienz’s electric zither pre-eminent. Volkov and his band then showed their mettle with a lovingly-detailed and passionately-energised account of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.

The late Prom was designed to highlight the couple’s Gypsy-jazz side, and though their jazz was no hotter than tepid - despite Julian Joseph’s presence at the keyboard - it made a pleasant hour. Barley’s arrangements of numbers by Bratsch, John Lewis, and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul were felicitous, and his elegy to Mullova’s father formed a graceful point of stillness at the centre of the event. The longest work, Kodaly’s ‘Duo, Opus 7’, was rendered with great finesse, but elsewhere Mullova’s attempts to bend the notes alla zingarese were a bit over-strenuous. And no Gypsy would spend so much time retuning between numbers.