CBSO/Volkov – review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

It is no secret that Ilan Volkov was one of the conductors in the frame to become the CBSO's next music director when Andris Nelsons was appointed in 2007. Since then, Volkov has maintained links with the orchestra as a guest conductor. The programme for his latest visit ticked a couple of the CBSO's thematic boxes: Britten's Piano Concerto marked the composer's centenary, while Sibelius's magically mysterious tone poem The Bard, from 1913, was part of 2020, a year-by-year exploration of the music of the decade leading up to the orchestra's founding in 1920.

The concert ended with another of Sibelius's most beautiful and enigmatic works, the Sixth Symphony, in which Volkov seized on the few moments when its poise and tranquillity are ruffled to extract what drama he could. Yet the perfectly seamless unfolding was never threatened, and the CBSO played with a fabulous attention to every detail and harmonic nuance. They were equally impressive in Britten's concerto, sometimes the adversary to soloist Steven Osborne, sometimes his partner in crime. Osborne has absolutely nailed the work's mixture of heartless exhibitionism and brittle ebullience, and he played it with glittering panache and awesome brilliance.

In between, there was the world premiere of the orchestral version of John Oswald's b9 Part One. It compresses into 15 minutes what Oswald — who, according to his biography, was voted the third most internationally influential Canadian musician, equal with Céline Dion – regards as the salient features of the first five of Beethoven's symphonies, on the basis that the music is now so familiar and accessible that we no longer need its repeats, as they only "impede the dramatic momentum inherent in the work". As a result, everything we cherish in the music – harmonic structure, large-scale architecture, sense of cumulative power – gets jettisoned in this utterly pointless exercise.

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Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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