BBC SSO / Volkov
City Halls, Glasgow
Bruno Maderna’s music deserves greater prominence than it gets in today’s concert billings. As an active, if largely underrated, figure in the European postwar avant-garde, who mentored such slightly younger luminaries as Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez, he has never quite attained the lasting presence he deserves.
Thanks, then, to Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO for building a programme – at least the first half of last Thursday’s afternoon concert – around his exuberant and acerbic Venetian Journal, a concert-style monodrama, written two years before his death in 1973, which paints a wacky vision of James Boswell’s 18th century visit to Venice, as documented with plentiful self-conceit in the Scots diarist’s own colourful recollections.
Scored for tenor, orchestra and tape, there was no mistaking, in this brilliantly wicked and wittily-presented performance, parallels to Peter Maxwell Davies’ anarchic music theatre pieces that would have been emerging around the same time. But Maderna’s voice is a wholly individual one, his textures clean and sparkling, expressive of a musical language that remains incisive and distinctive even when it makes carping jokes or travels in time.
Venetian Journal explodes into life with a vying racket of pre-recorded operatic snatches and orchestral gunfire, the soloist – the animated tenor Benjamin Hulett – entering as the fatuous Boswell, initially calming the menagerie, but soon summoning the bluster and gaucheness necessary to match the music’s restless narrative.
Hullet played a blinder, accentuating the pomposity of the character through his impressive vocal agility. It was left to the compact instrumental ensemble to capture the multiple excesses, not least the score’s high-speed, cartoon-like volatility and irrepressible sense of ridicule and laughter. Its sardonic directness was right up Volkov’s street.
So was Maderna’s Tre pezzi, a chamber ensemble arrangement of three pieces by the seminal Italian Baroque composer, Frescobaldi, which projects the original music through a modern-day lens. On he one hand, Volkov elicited a warm and comforting period sound from the players, while at the same time capturing the crystalline quirks – the obsessive accentuated prominence given to cellular motifs – with which Maderna opens our eyes to the inner workings of Renaissance polyphony.
Genuine French Baroque opened the concert’s second half, an orchestral suite by Rameau (edited by Nicholas McGegan) from his 1749 opera Naïs. Here was further opportunity for the SSO to show off its stylistic adaptability, which it did with finely-honed discipline, but with plentiful ruggedness and exuberance to express the celebratory nature of this musical response to the termination of the War of Austrian Succession.
As if to offer a right to reply, it was an Austrian symphony that concluded this engagement, Haydn’s Symphony No 82, The Bear. The subtitle wasn’t Haydn’s, and is essentially irrelevant. But there was adequate vigour and sturdy, irrepressible momentum in this performance to warrant a nod in its favour. It was also elegant, and yet another riveting example of the chemistry between Volkov and the SSO.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds