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Sibelius, James Dillon, Stravinsky

Prom 36: Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2006.


Sibelius: En Saga

James Dillon: Andromeda (Piano concerto) (BBC commission: world premiere)

Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete ballet)


Noriko Kawai (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov (conductor)


Having attended the previous evening's Prom, also given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov's direction, and found it an uneven affair, I was hoping for something rather more inspiring in this concert. Such hopes were partly fulfilled.


Ilan Volkov launched into En Saga 's maelstrom of ideas with headlong energy, drawing playing of vividness from his orchestra. That the work's central concept is of struggle was made admirably clear such was the excitement Volkov brought out through fullness of tone in the lower strings and brass. Although Sibelius himself did state the exact nature of the saga that the music might illustrate there was no denying it was one of elemental power. The reading suggested ideas of imminent fate, contemplation, mystery and a vision of the eternal that were wholly appropriate. Indeed, that such visions came forth with such vividness was thanks to palpable excitement to be drawn from the playing itself.


After such exciting stuff I was full of expectation that much of the same enthusiasm would be brought to James Dillon's Andromeda (Piano Concerto) . A strange piece in many respects: by appending the words piano concerto to the title one might think that traditional features of form and structure would be utilised in the writing, but not so. Written as a single 35-minute movement the work dispenses with much in the way of development of ideas by presenting 15 sections, each of which was conceived as a contrast to its neighbours.


With an opening splash across the percussion, timpani and brass a jazzy line was invoked that set the precedent for exploration in terms of range and technique throughout the assembled instrumental ranges. Early on it seemed as if reliance upon technical challenges for their own sake would be relied upon in the creation of snippets of sound. Once they were tried and found interesting by Dillon they were repeated ten or twelve times, just in case it was missed the first time. Such an approach was made all the more obvious by over-reliance upon percussion and brass in the orchestration.


The term ‘concerto' too was to be interpreted in the loosest of senses: the piano occasionally contrasted with orchestral material, but for much of the time was barely audible amongst the wider morass of sounds. Some three minutes into the work a lengthy solo passage appeared from nowhere, and to what end? Noriko Kawai put her long experience of Dillon's music to good use however and rose to the technical challenges laid before her with more commitment than subtlety, but then the latter was not so often called for.


Paul Driver's programme biography on Dillon ends by commenting that: “Dillon has developed an original and philosophical musical voice.” I'd hold that open to question, by turn there were elements in the work that reminded momentarily of Stravinsky, Gershwin, Debussy and even distantly of Hindemith – so where's the originality in that? Maybe it goes to illustrate the dearth of new ideas largely in evidence amongst recent compositions. Possibly one should be depressed by the state of affairs that suggests. I would be to a far greater extent had Dillon's work not contrasted in one remarkable respect with that of Harvey 's the night before: Dillon clearly possesses a sense of humour, evident in the textural awareness of his writing. That at least was not an insignificant point in the piece's favour that Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made the most of.


For those that know Stravinsky's The Firebird primarily as the suites into which the ballet was shoehorned, hearing the full piece can be something of a mixed blessing. Yes, there's the completeness, but even in an assured and keenly paced performance such as this there can be longeurs which can not be entirely masked. Lacking dancers to divert attention, or to be more charitable to Stravinsky, fill in the gaps, such stretches can become a mite tiresome – that is if one does not readily respond to the subtlety of the orchestration. The full score is more subtle too – like seeing a watercolour alongside an oil painting, they might both portray the same scene but their manner of doing so is entirely different. Volkov presented ostensibly an expansive view of the piece, allowing individual instruments their own place within the whole. The scene moved effortlessly from opening premonition to playfulness conjuring magical spells and death effortlessly along its path. Stravinsky's sensually aware orchestration was richly explored to give a reading that revelled in its own beauty to provide its own not inconsiderable reward.


© Evan Dickerson