Larcher: Double Concerto; Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 | A selection of Gypsy-inspired works

Mullova, Barley, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Volkov | Mullova, Barley, Joseph, Clarvis, Walton

Royal Albert Hall, 19 August 2011 3.5 stars 4 stars

MullovaAn eclectic evening at the Proms tonight, with new orchestral music, a canonical romantic symphony, and a range of Gypsy inspired chamber music forming a rather interesting musical weave, a weave united (with the exception of the Bruckner symphony) by the presence of Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley on violin and cello.

Mullova and Barley were soloists in Austrian composer Thomas Larcher's new Double Concerto. Larcher is a composer for whom tone colour often plays a key role in determining musical form and contour, just as he is a composer whose musical language invariably plays off contrasts of atonal and post-tonal pitch material. The Double Concerto does not deviate from this style; if anything, in fact, it contains the richest application and development of these techniques that I have so far heard in Larcher’s music.

The large scale form is characterised by a movement from fragmented, dissonant grids, into an enriched C major. On the local level, the piece shifts compellingly between concentrated, passionate lyric playing from the two soloists (and Barley and Mullova were on vivid form, particularly in these sections), and more turbulent group activity, before graduating into a kind of exploratory group outpouring in the second half, where some of the material from the first receives extended development. The distinctive concertino group of electric zither, accordion, prepared piano (played by Larcher himself), and percussion, often acts as mediator between the ensemble and soloists.

Without wanting to be glib or incongruous, I would compare the flow of the piece to a vomiting fit; you vomit, in a confused state, before reaching a kind of pensive but troubled calm in the intervening periods. Eventually, the vomiting stops, and you're left in that troubled state for quite a while, before it all recedes into the distance. This wonderfully realised piece plays out something like this – with the added bonus that you don’t feel any of the unpleasantness we associate with vomiting, instead attending merely to the turbulence of a musical discourse that suggests the kind of struggle comparable to the bodily struggle of being sick. (Alright, I'm straining the analogy at this point.)

As was the case with the Larcher, conductor Ilan Volkov brought a reflective, perhaps even ponderous, sense of deliberation to the second half's Bruckner Five. This is less of an extrovert or wild work than some of the other symphonies, but even still this performance, particularly in the middle movements (despite some glorious moments in the Adagio), felt just a little too measured.

Volkov is a fantastic conductor, whose musical intelligence is as marked, and his sensitivity to argument as sharp, as any of his peers. As such, the careful weighting of each subject group in the first movement, and the handling of all of those sudden enigmatic contrasts in the material throughout that movement and the finale likewise, was hard not to appreciate. However, as things wore on I longed for Volkov to let more of a sense of precarity into his handling of the work’s many spinning thematic and gestural plates; where I wanted bluster, I got dialectics. That being said, I did feel that the final climactic return of the early chorale theme, following much careful preparation, really did hit home.

The Late Night Prom showed a very different side to Mullova and Barley. The duo gave an enjoyable concert of chamber works that were based on either Gypsy melodies, or on music composed by people with Gypsy influence in their background one way or another.

Many of the tunes had been arranged by Barley, with the exception of the unassuming Yura, which he composed, and the Kodaly duo which formed the centrepiece of the concert. Mullova and Barley have an obvious rapport, being married, but their styles of playing – him graceful and focussed, her graceful too, but a little more extrovert – make for easy and fertile bedfellows (if you'll excuse the pun), and their performance of the Kodaly duo felt gorgeously companionable, and tonally rich too.

The band, which consisted of piano, percussion, and drums, in addition to the frontline violin and cello, played with agility in the faster, chewier pieces (such as 'Bi Lovengo' by Bratsch), and with a sweet lyrical calm in the slower ones (such as the passionate and singing Lewis/Bratsch 'Django'). As befits the style, a palpable freedom drove the performances, with pianist Julian Jospeh, particularly, cutting loose on some knotty, compelling solos. The concert built and built in atmosphere, until finally the band really let fly with their last couple of numbers, including the slip-sliding, Taraf de Haidouks-like fun of the seven-beat 'For Nedim' (originally by DuOud).

By this point the crowd were variously tapping their feet, clapping along cheerfully, nodding happily, or simply sitting looking content; there's nothing a Middle England crowd like more than a bit of easily digested trad! As this snarky comment indicates, I had dread the dread of fusion on the way into the concert, but actually this dread turned out to be basically unfounded; this was an accomplished and fun show, even in spite of the tuning issues which significantly delayed the concert at a couple of points.

The Peasant Girl, a CD containing many of the pieces heard in this concert, and featuring the same band, is now available on Onyx records.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Matthew Barley and Viktoria Mullova


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