BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

When the weather outside is frightful, the music can be delightful – and under the baton of Ilan Volkov it needs no garnish of tinsel and holly.

It was admirable how the BBC Scottish put some promotional muscle behind this typically bold programme from the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which he enthusiastically commended to music-lovers who don’t feel the need to tuck in to the usual seasonal fare at this time of year. The result was a good attendance, doubtless including some who savour the taste of Volkov’s Tectonics weekend at the same venue in May.

The audience’s reward was a brilliantly-crafted concert, both in its planning and the way the different works – all from the last century but spanning six decades – spoke to one another, and in its execution by the musicians.

The earliest work was Debussy’s Jeux, composed to a Diaghilev commission at the same time as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but now as likely to be heard for a revival of the tennis court love triangle ballet as in the concert hall. It requires a vast orchestra (there were a few familiar faces from other Scottish outfits as well as freelances augmenting the SSO) and has a huge range of tonal colours. The perhaps predictable harps and flutes feature alongside an extended cor anglais solo and late interjections by the trombones.

What made all the details of the score leap out was the fact that Volkov had preceded it with the rarely-heard Xenakis work, Atrées. More by coincidence than design, the five movements of that piece, composed as the 1950s blossomed into the early 60s, utilised some similar instrumental techniques, picked out in detail by a very specific chamber octet, plus percussionists.

Long before the late Johann Johannsson’s career-making exploration of early IBM computing in Iceland, Xenakis was working with IBM France on music that explored probabilities and referenced mathematical thinking of three centuries previously. The result is a work that exploits the sonic range of each of the instruments as well as the orchestral possibilities of their combination, developing over its 15 minutes in a unique and compelling way. It demanded much of the players, but Volkov’s direction of them could not have been more lucid and precise.

Some of those sounds – especially the use of glissando and pizzicato – would be explored after the interval as well, when Bartok’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was prefaced by Ligeti’s Ramifications for strings, from the later 1960s.

Both works require mirroring symmetrical set-ups on stage, with the 12 stringed instruments in the Ligeti in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart, a dissonance that is sometimes corrected by the fingering. Again it seems unlikely that Ligeti is specifically referencing the Bartok in any way, but Volkov had identified elements of shared language and common reluctance to settle for any conventional notions of harmony. Just as importantly, the exercise of listening to the Ligeti prepared audience ears to appreciate a stonking performance of the Bartok which was full of foreboding in its opening movement and gloriously expressive in its dancing finale.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Volkov delivering such an immaculately-structured programme, and ensuring that it was executed with such precision and finesse. Approaching two decades on from his arrival at Glasgow City Halls as a preciously young Chief Conductor, he still exacts the pinnacle of performance from the members of the BBC SSO.

Keith Bruce