BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

The moment the BBC SSO struck up its first notes in Thursday’s all-French concert, there was an energy and richness in attack that made this listener sit up and take notice. They were playing under principal guest conductor (and one-time chief conductor) Ilan Volkov and it was as if someone had inserted fresh batteries. Long lasting ones at that.

The programme itself was hot-wired, a journey through the gauche eccentricities of Germaine Tailleferre and Francis Poulenc towards a second half dedicated to the more familiar territory of Camille Saint Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

The last of these may be well-known – not least via Hollywood’s theft of the big maestoso theme for a film about a Yorkshire pig – but here was a performance that took care to identify the subtleties and genius of Saint-Saëns’ orchestral vision. Every bar seemed to have been re-considered by Volkov, moments where he hushed the string to reveal jewel-like counterpoints in the woodwind, more marked articulations that took any stodginess out of the finale, replacing it with freshness, light and directional intent.

Organist Michael Bawtree, for all that he was handicapped to an extent by a digital organ incapable of fully capturing the visceral sparkle of the closing moments, bought into Volkov’s detailed approach, establishing especially a transfixing, timeless calm in the slow movement.

The symphony was also an affirmative response to a first half full of high jinks, firstly in Tailleferre’s playful Le marchand d’oiseaux, a virtuosic 1923 ballet score driven equally with fickleness and sensuous melody, and then in Poulenc’s rarely-heard Concerto for two pianos, featuring the pianists Naïri Badal and Adélaïde Panaget, known collectively as Duo Jatekok.

If the Tailleferre seemed capricious, the Poulenc was superbly madcap, Badal and Panaget playing to its brilliant absurdities, ranging from cartoonesque catch-me-if-you-can moments to those of utterly prepossessing sensuality. Volkov’s control of the orchestra was again perceptive and vital, with just the odd momentary lapse in synchronisation between widely spaced players.

The fun continued in the first of two encores, an elaborate and luscious arrangement for two pianos of Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen, before ending with Kurtag’s sublime piano duet arrangement of Bach’s Sonatina from the Cantata Actus Tragicus.  

A postscript to a delightful concert. Thomas Dausgaard’s inconsistent six-year tenure as chief conductor of the SSO ends this summer. There are no obvious successors surfacing with the ability and compatibility to turn the orchestra’s fortunes around. Volkov has done it before, and maintains – as this concert proves – a fresh and dynamic chemistry with the players. Would he consider doing it again?

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date