Proms 23 & 24: BBC SSO/Volkov, Royal Albert Hall, London ***/****

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The Independent Culture

As usual, the initial fast-forward storytelling came only briefly to life with the fizzy tenor solo, which Jean-Paul Fouchécourt filled with pace and vivid immediacy. Still, it's unusual for the last half-hour to produce the most rousing experience. For all the orchestra's beauty and precision, Volkov's conducting only found real intensity after Romeo's death. John Relyea's resplendent bass and the London Symphony Chorus, finally getting heated, delivered sweeping grandeur.

But Sibelius proved right up Volkov's street. Opening the second concert, the Symphony No 3 quickly picked up a tension between scurrying activity and long horn notes that defines the music's sense of evolving from fast to slow. Its visions of stillness maintained a vital, breathing quality.

In Brahms' Second Piano Concerto, Nelson Freire was at one with the orchestra in high-quality music-making, beyond fuss or self-importance. Freire has the stamina and tonal weight this concerto requires, with a pace and delicacy that were given their head in a vivacious finale. But it was concentration and steady momentum that dominated in a performance of great breadth and power.

For the first UK performance of Four Pieces for Orchestra by Hans Abrahamsen, the stage spawned a preposterously large body of players for a mere 15 minutes. The music has been blown up from a 20-year-old set of piano pieces, though it looked more like early Schoenberg on the page, and actually sounded quite distinct from anybody. Warm, romantic harmonies slid in and out of focus, relating to one another as though in free association. All the pieces were spacious and mysterious.

Abrahamsen's refined sense of timbre allowed Volkov to shade one chord into another as smoothly as computer-generated light, and in that sense the music used its forces effectively. But - wicked thought - you could have had several hundred performances of the piano pieces for the outlay.

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