BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

There’s something about the “idée fixe” – a theme or motif composers weave and manipulate throughout a work to both unify and characterise their creations – that gets under your skin. It is a powerfully defining device that Berlioz, most of all, applied with obsessive emotional pungency to such Romantic epics as his Symphonie fantastique. But, just as in the psychological definition, it can be an irritating fixation. Whether or not it was her intention, and I suspect it was, Cassandra Miller plays that card to its extreme in her Duet for Cello and Orchestra.

That possibly wasn’t the reason conductor Ilan Volkov pitted these works against each other in Thursday’s thought-provoking BBC SSO programme, but it was hard not to be minded retrospectively of Miller’s, to some extent, cynical extremism in the later unfolding of Berlioz’s musical angst.

This was a return visit by the SSO, Volkov and soloist Charles Curtis to Miller’s concerto, which they premiered at the 2015 Tectonics Glasgow festival. Miller describes it as a homage to Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, and to be sure, its progressively intensified orchestral episodes emulate the syrupy, ecstatic ripeness of southern Italian folk music, in this case based on the actual Sardinian folk song, Trallallera. 

These glitzy repetitive sunbursts, dominated by a bullish and brazen SSO trumpet section, seemed intent on goading the intransigence of Curtis’ belligerent cello performance – for the most part an unceasing repetition of two oscillating notes – into action. It took most of the 30-minute duration for that to have the desired effect, like a release from an inescapable hypnotic nightmare, the cellist responding with a brief and final catharsis of stratospheric harmonics before abruptly signing off with a throwaway glissando. 

Volkov’s cool insistence, and the SSO’s charismatic response, captured the obstinacy of Millar’s quirky mindset. (For those taken by it, and with a propensity to travel, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is presenting a day-long focus on Miller’s chamber and orchestral music on 19 October.)  

On its own, this concerto performance would have left us in a mild state of anxiety, but Berlioz’s effusive musical depiction, the Symphonie fantastique, of his infatuation for the actress Harriet Smithson – he subtitled it “Episode in the Life of an Artist” – provided a coruscating antidote. 

Once again, it was the tangible chemistry Volkov enjoys with an orchestra he has been associated with for the past 20 years that guaranteed the rollercoaster thrill. Every vivid scene, every emotional deviation in the fantastical journey, was heightened by a natural, visceral synergy, which the conductor inspired with an empowering economy of gestures.

The entire band swayed physically as one, negotiating the hazy uncertainty of the opening Daydreams, the whirling delirium of the Ball scene, the pastorale sentimentality of the Adagio, and the combined bombast and finality of the March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, with unfettered inevitability. This was a masterclass in disciplined passion, where less was very much more, where by keeping the eye on the ball – the centrifugal persistence of the idée fixe – this volcanic music ultimately took care of itself.

Ken Walton 

Repeated tonight (Fri 29 Sep) in Aberdeen Music Hall. Thursday’s live broadcast from Glasgow available on BBC Sounds for 30 days.