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Ravel, Unsuk Chin and Stravinsky

Ravel: La Valse
Unsuk Chin: Cello Concerto (2008/2009) (BBC commission: world première)
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps

Alban Gerhardt – cello, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov  

Royal Albert Hall – Prom 38 – 13 August 2009

Ravel’s La Valse (1919/1920) is a manic and malevolent evocation of the end of the old world. In the right hands this can be a terrifying experience and can, literally, bring the house down; it is that powerful a work. Unfortunately, tonight although Volkov gave a well prepared reading, ultimately it was far too pretty and safe; there was no sense of danger and the desperation of the closing pages was entirely missed. The orchestra played very well but that isn’t enough for this piece.


Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto is a half hour, four movement work, scored for huge orchestra with lots of percussion. This work is filled with some very beautiful, long breathed lyricism, the cello sings most eloquently and there is also much virtuoso display, but this simply isn’t enough to carry a work of this duration.


The first movement contained both fast and slow music – the slow music was quite impressionistic and melodic, but the fast music, which one only knew was fast because Volkov was beating time quickly and the soloist was racing through fingers–full of semiquavers, seemed out of place for there was no momentum. At the end two thunder sheets unleashed a loud fuselage for which there was no preparation or necessity. The second, scherzo–like, started with a wild dance for the percussion section. When this ended there was much scurrying and scrambling semiquaver movement and the percussion music never reappeared. What was its purpose? I am at a loss to know.


The third movement was splendid – long melodic music, with flowering melismata. Time seemed suspended and the whole section was hypnotic and compelling. The finale, another supposedly fast movement, was fragmentary, flecks of sound from here and there, but without a true idea of where it was going.


I feel that there are several things which let this work down. First of all, Chin employed a very large orchestra but never really used it. I appreciate that it’s important not to cover the soloist but an orchestra of this size, which spends much of its time sitting, playing nothing, is a waste of musicians. My second problem is the percussion. This is the third première of an orchestral work I’ve heard at the Proms this year and all of them suffered from an over abundance of percussion, which was used poorly, and often covered some fine orchestral writing.


Chin seemed not to know what to do with her percussion section hence the two passages already mentioned which gave nothing to the piece and only served to prove that they were there. Thirdly, the piece neither focus nor progression. What Chin has actually written is a very beautiful elegiac Cello Concerto with a simple scoring for strings and timpani and hidden it in a much larger, and ultimately, unsuccessful work. With some pruning and scaling down there is a very fine piece under all the excess clothing. Alban Gerhardt played this demanding piece from memory and must be praised for his dedicated advocacy.


After the interval Volkov and his orchestra gave a straight forward, shock free, performance of the Rite of Spring. The reason for shock free is because every note was played in a rather tepid fashion – there was little excitement, and instead of thinking “oh, wow, that section was fabulous” I found myself thinking, “oh, we’re here now”. Like the Ravel, this was treated as little more than an orchestral showpiece, the various sections hanging together very loosely, and having no real forward drive.


David Bird


But see also - - Chin’s violin concerto (2001) is something special - - weaved into burgeoning tapestries of sound, the orchestra enhanced by a large percussion section wielded with delicacy, not power - - an essential addition to your CD collection of violin concertos [Editor]


Andrew Clements in The Guardian: - - Chin won the prestigious Grawemeyer award in 2004 for her previous violin concerto, but the new work, a BBC commission, is more considerable in every respect - - a major addition to the concerto repertory