Although Kurtag's 1994 work Stele marked his first return to writing for symphony orchestra since his student days, he was obviously in no way intimidated by the forces available to him. Written at Claudio Abbado's request for the Berlin Philharmonic, the instrumentation included an impressive array of timpani, grand and upright pianos, as well as pianino and celeste, two concert harps, four Wagner tubas, and no less than six flutes, including alto and bass flutes, so rarely seen on the concert stage.
Kurtag is not a prolific composer, and here the three Stele of this piece included some reworking of his earlier material. Other references are numerous, from the Stravinskian primeval mutterings of the opening, to a sound world much indebted to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Even so, the overall effect, with its forlorn pulsating woodwind chords layering sighing strings, is most clearly Kurtag, here presented in a wonderfully engaging performance.
Considering the sizeable forces in front of him, conductor Ilan Volkov looked quite at ease on the podium. At just thirty years old, and the youngest-ever Chief Conductor of a BBC Orchestra, Volkov has the qualities of a great conductor and delivered a superbly assured performance. With a finely tuned ear and an absolute understanding of the work, Volkov exerted authoritative control, yet was wholly unobtrusive, allowing the music to take centre stage.
Indeed, Volkov's perceived 'oneness' with the music became truly evident in the second half of the concert, Mahler's achingly beautiful and epic Ninth Symphony. Certainly Volkov is gaining a reputation as an admirable interpreter of the romantic repertory; here one had the sense that he breathed every phrase, as did the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with him. The tempi were mostly well-paced, and often reminiscent of Abbado's definitive Deutsche Grammophon recording of the symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. Brass and woodwind excelled throughout the evening, particularly bassoons and clarinets in the bubbling second movement. The third movement continued the rustic and peasant character of the second, but when faced with a more aggressive and grotesque character, the string section got a little ragged at the edges.
The final movement further exposed some weaknesses in the string section, some of the sliding melodies not quite arriving together. For such a passionate movement, the summation of not only a symphony but the entire Austro-German symphonic repertoire to date, the romantic in me would have preferred the orchestra to linger a little longer over phrases, which, coupled with a richer, darker string tone, would have given life to the lugubrious character of this finale.
Unfortunately, the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall were shown at their worst in the final dying bars of the symphony, a plague of coughs, sneezes and banging chairs trying hard to detract from an otherwise hushed atmosphere. One can only hope that the enduring memory will be that of a young conductor taking another firm step towards a distinguished career.