Hailed as a fire-brand for his work in Glasgow, Ilan Volkov gave a tepid performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO) at the Proms this week (Prom 35). Jonathan Harvey's sublime map of heaven ...Towards a Pure Land was the sole highlight of an otherwise dull concert. Few composers have the ear for percussion that Harvey has, or the ability to conjure such long-breathed, radiant calm. Sadly, such was the narcotic effect that Mozart's Piano Concerto No 25 in C major (K503) was played in a similar haze of suspended animation.
The BBCSSO have a handsome sound but, in this concert, they lacked invention and wit. The most spirited section of the concerto was Stephen Kovacevich's cadenza, but between the splashiness of his left hand, the wash of pedalling and bland articulation of the bassoons, it was an account I would prefer to forget. Each movement was delivered at roughly the same strolling speed and diffident dynamic, with little sense of creative dialogue between orchestra and soloist. Meanwhile, Volkov acted as a human metronome, which no decent orchestra should need.
I had hoped Schumann's Rhenish Symphonymight shake Volkov out of his torpor. Alas, it didn't. Though the outer movements of the symphony are marked Lebhaft, they were far from lively, and only the third movement, Nicht schnell, met Schumann's criterion. Phrase after phrase ran into the next without punctuation, amplification, or change of emphasis, making this hyper-sensitive, intricately textured work as characterless as an automated message, and, in the fourth movement, bizarrely reminiscent of Bruckner. I can't believe this performance was typical of Volkov or his orchestra, but there's more to music-making than delivering the right notes in the right order.
A few days earlier, Julian Anderson's latest Proms commission, Heaven is Shy of Earth, was premiered by Sir Andrew Davis, Angelika Kirchschlager, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Chorus (Prom 32). A secular work that nonetheless incorporates verses from Psalm 84, the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei of the Latin Mass - wrapping the Sanctus around Emily Dickinson's pantheistic poem - it reminded me of Britten's War Requiem. Not stylistically, and not in terms of its ecstatic subject matter, but in the sharp contrast between the hackneyed ceremonial choruses and the sensitive and imaginative writing for solo voice and orchestra.
Though the BBC chorus were as well drilled as ever, I wonder whether Anderson would have been happier with just one voice and an orchestra. Setting aside the gimmicky whispers of "eleison, eleison", a crude rehash of the sopranos-and-altos versus tenors-and-basses trope in the Sanctus, and a cumbersome choral reiteration of Dickinson's words, Heaven is Shy of Earth recalls the lyrical sensuality of Anderson'sShir Hashirim (2001). A meditative Intrada for flugelhorn unfolds to a shimmer of high-altitude violins. Flutes dance and dart with the sparrow and swallow of the psalm, a melismatic rhapsody sung with extraordinary poignancy by Kirchschlager. A quartet of instruments tuned a quarter-tone below the rest refract the harmonies, while celesta and tuned percussion dazzle like sunshine through leaves. Somewhere in this sometimes lovely, sometimes lumpen work is an intimate and moving piece for mezzo and orchestra. What a shame that that piece, like Dickinson's poem, has been swallowed up by a Mass.
So to Glyndebourne, to see the first revival of David McVicar's lavish production of Giulio Cesare. It may seem perverse to criticise a production for its eagerness to please, but McVicar's show is so relentless in its efforts to divert and delight with cutesome details and pseudo-Bollywood choreography that I was unable to forget that I was watching a theatrical event and simply respond to the drama, which, in any case, is an odd mixture of romance and tragedy. Unpick the plot and there are three Handel operas here: the love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra, the humiliation of Sesto and his mother Cornelia, and the fight for power between Cleopatra and Tolomeo.
As before, I was more moved by the plight of Sesto (Katerina Karneus) and Cornelia (Sara Mingardo) than I was by Caesar's autumnal infatuation. For a production seemingly obsessed with orientalism and sexuality - be it the high-camp of Nireno (Rachid Ben Abdeslam), the brute machismo of Achilla (Nathan Berg), or the incestuous tics of Tolomeo (Lawrence Zazzo) - Giulio Cesare has little sexual chemistry and is thoroughly domesticated by its references to the British Empire. Think Carry On Cleo meets Carry On Up the Khyber and you've got the look, and, indeed, some of the humour.
David Daniels has a more voluptuous tone than last year's Caesar, Sarah Connolly, but lacks her reserve and stillness and cuts an unconvincing figure as a military man in the throes of an unexpected passion. Reprising her role as Cleopatra, Danielle De Niese shimmies tirelessly through an infinite variety of costume changes, coloratura arias and dance routines, but fails to project desire or despair. In the pit, Emmanuelle Haim and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment give a persuasive account of the score, notwithstanding some rococo decorations in the da capo arias, and an occasionally unwieldy bass line. Star of the show? Violinist Nadjia Zwiener, for her beguiling Act II duet with Daniels, "Se in fiorito ameno prato".
'Giulio Cesare', Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 813813) to 26 AugustReuse content