When the Israeli-born Ilan Volkov was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra last year, much was made of the fact that he was only 27.
When the Israeli-born Ilan Volkov was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra last year, much was made of the fact that he was only 27. Actually he looks nearer 17, and his conducting manner is still very much a young man's - volatile, intense, unfailingly big-gestured whatever the scale and style of the music. Yet, over recent months, he has brought precision, intelligence, character and fire to an astonishingly varied repertoire, from Haydn to Dallapiccola. Notwithstanding the usual young-artist hype, this is the real thing.
His programme was typically eclectic, starting with slimmed-down, none-too-familiar Mozart. None-too-familiar, because the so-called Symphony No 32 in G major, K318 is really just an overture: a sprightly allegro with a suave minuet middle-section. But to this, Volkov and his players brought a crispness and warmth, before moving on to still rarer Janacek. In fact, his 20-minute cantata The Eternal Gospel (1914) was receiving its first-ever Proms performance.
Setting an Apocalyptic vision of a coming Kingdom of the Spirit out of the 12th-century mystic Joachim de Fiore, this is a score hovering on the edge of Janacek's laconic late style. Almost any bar sounds striking of itself, but one is not always so sure, as yet, how one bar links to another. Still, with the tenor John Daszak eloquent as de Fiore, the young soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers majestic as the answering angelic voice, and the London Philharmonic Choir in focused, powerful form, this performance made the best possible case for the piece.
And so to the fearsome demands of Mahler's near-80-minute Symphony No 7 (1904-5), with its vast and searing first movement, its trio of nocturnal middle movements and its crazily celebratory dawn finale. Volkov took his time getting the darkly complex structure of the opening movement under way, though he later made much both of its lyrical respites and some of the most strident textures Mahler ever wrote. Of the middle movements, the scherzo was exceptionally fleet and fugitive; the serenade, with its touches guitar and mandolin, exquisitely affectionate.
But the finale was the revelation. Often criticised as puzzlingly inadequate to the rest of the symphony, it emerged here as one of Mahler's most innovatory structures: an unprecedented jump-cut collage of chorales, landlers, carillons, Turkish percussion, yodelling and so much else. It would be idle to pretend the BBC Scottish SO could always respond to Volkov's fierce drive with immaculate ensemble or a Vienna Philharmonic weight of tone. But this was vital, riveting music-making from beginning to end.
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