Big-Boned Russian Beasts in Riveting Performances from the BBC SSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Finnis, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov: Vadym Kholodenko (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.2.2017. (SRT)

Edmund Finnis – The Air, Turning
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 Op.18
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

We came for this hits, and they sounded splendid. Scheherazade sounds best when it’s played through a wide angle lens, and Ilan Volkov gave the work tremendously grand sweep, the seascape ebbing and flowing unstoppably, while the festival of Baghdad seemed to carry an uncommonly vigorous energy. The orchestral sound was large-scale and big-boned, underpinned by tremendously powerful low brass, and countered by the beautifully sweet playing of leader Laura Samuel in Scheherazade’s own theme.

Hits don’t come much bigger than Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. It was the prospect of a rare Scottish visit by Yevgeny Sudbin that first drew me to this concert, so I was disappointed when he pulled out. However, Vadym Kholodenko was quite a find for a replacement, and during his performance I didn’t miss Sudbin once. Kholodenko is a quiet, understated presence at the keyboard, but his lack of showiness underscores the fact that he’s a servant of the music, not someone who seeks to bend it to his will. There was a sweep and poetry to his playing that matched Volkov’s symphonic vision of the music – those first movement unison violins were fantastic! – and the dark ripplings of the opening gave way seamlessly to a development section that seemed to skit over the keys as though barely touching them. The slow movement was full of exquisite melancholy, and the finale tripped delicately, with a dreamy second subject, before the barnstorming conclusion. Like I said, he’s a real find, and someone I’ll be watching out for in future.

In the end, however, it was the premiere in this concert that struck me most, even more than those hits. The music of Edmund Finnis is new to me, but if The Air, Turning is anything to go by then his is a very distinctive voice that I’d like to encounter again. It’s a fairly straightforward, mostly tonal piece that works through juxtaposition of individually characterised textures, which seem to cycle round upon themselves, something suggested by the title. I found it very atmospheric, and quite magical. The opening is almost Sibelian in the way he uses the chilly strings and bleak, keening winds, but warmth and vigour come later, with one section of string writing that sounds almost like Bruckner! The strings’ undulating circuits put me in mind of film music at one point, and the bowed percussion, as well as the constantly tintinnabulating gongs enhanced the powerful atmosphere. I will watch out for him again.

Discovering one exciting talent in a concert is good luck, but discovering two – a pianist and a composer – feels like munificence.

Simon Thompson

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