Proms 38: Ravel, Stravinsky, Unsuk Chin'e Cello Concerto

Gerhardt, BBC SSO/Volkov

Royal Albert Hall, 16 August 2009 3.5 stars

Alban Gerhardt

Stravinsky's ballet music for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes is one of the themes of this year's Proms, and you are not that far from the bullseye with The Rite of Spring, which occupied the second half of the evening's programme. But before we got there, the orchestra played itself in with two works separated by nearly a century – Ravel's La Valse of 1919 and the world premiere of the cello concerto of Korean composer (new resident in Berlin) Unsuk Chin, composed 2008-9. Fresh-minted then, freshly printed and a chance to hear a world premiere such as the audience heard in the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris in May 1913, when their reaction to the unfamiliarities and crashing dissonances of Stravinsky's score was to riot. No such behaviour at the Albert Hall on Thursday evening!

Chin is attracting attention and followers with her refined and individual orchestral style, and her violin concerto has just been released (to considerable acclaim) on CD. So I was keen to hear a work that cellist Alban Gerhardt hopes, as he says in the programme note Q & A, to take on the road and establish as 'the best concerto written in the last 30 years'. The work opens quietly, with Chin establishing immediately a small-scale dialogue between cello and orchestra, the soloist insisting on a single note or phrase around that note while the sound spectrum of the full orchestra gradually expands and cuts across the soloist’s musings. Percussive effects, including harps and tuned glass bottles, play a large part in a long-breathed orchestral crescendo, leading to some virtuoso passage work from the cello in a substantial cadenza, and a gradual decrescendo to end the movement. The first movement, the longest and most substantial of the four, establishes the work’s credentials.

The second movement is a brief and energetic scherzo, the third a calm and shimmering wall of piano and pianissimo sound that undergoes constant chromatic shifts but maintains a sense of forward propulsion: this is assured orchestral writing and delicate scoring, the strands of texture sounded alternately by soloist and orchestra being artfully combined. The fourth movement is a counterpart to the first: cello and orchestra are in opposition to each other, a dialectic that is only resolved when the cello adopts its own melodic line and plays a spiralling upwards melody that takes us back towards the quiet moment with which the concerto began.

Gerhardt clearly believes in the work and combined passion and sensitivity in his playing: the cello sound he produced was clean, warm and vibrant throughout. I doubt there will be a better exponent of Chin’s writing for cello in the near term. The orchestra had clearly rehearsed the piece carefully: Ilan Volkov combined his forces well and gave the dynamic contrasts their full measure, without ever swamping the solo cello sound. Transparency of sound and lightness of texture was a commendable feature throughout the performance. And yet for me there was ultimately something lacking: for all the beautiful orchestral effects she created, Chin fails in my view to provide sufficient melodic development to sustain the very large forces this concerto demands. I should be interested to hear the work again, but I am not at all sure that it will indeed become the definitive cello concerto of our time. Audience reaction was generous, appreciative, but not overwhelming. And there was certainly nothing in the work to provoke a riot.

The concert's opener, La Valse, was nicely played, Volkov keeping the underlying beat firmly secured while introducing subtle rubato as the main theme constantly reappeared. And so to The Rite of Spring. This gave every section of the BBC SSO an opportunity to shine, and without exception they seized it. If the fortissimo passages were not quite as wild and abandoned as I have sometimes heard, the visceral excitement of Stravinsky’s constantly chopping and changing rhythms came across exactly as it should: Volkov built his performance carefully, and displayed wonderful rapport with the orchestra he has conducted with such distinction over the past seven years. His reading was also well-judged for the acoustic of the Albert Hall: the great waves of sound that Stravinsky creates need to be clearly articulated, not muddy in texture, and clarity was what we got. This was a first class, exciting Rite of Spring and it got the rousing ovation that it deserved. So we went out happy into the night.

But there were those who were equally happy on 29 May 1913. In his diaries for the period, Count Harry Kessler describes the overwhelming impact that now famous first performance had on him. 'A totally new vision, never before seen, gripping, overwhelming is suddenly with us; a new form of wildness that is both not art and art, all the old forms gone, new forms suddenly emerging from chaos'. At three o’clock in the morning, after hours of drinking and supper at Larue, Kessler, Diaghilev, Nijinski, Bakst and Cocteau took a taxi and went for a wild drive around the deserted streets of Paris, overwhelmed with passion for what they had just experienced. If a performance of The Rite of Spring gives you even a little sense of that excitement, it has to be a good one. And Volkov and his orchestra largely achieved just that.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Alban Gerhardt


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