BBC SSO/Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

QUITE correctly, the headline piece in this characteristically-inventive programme from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov was Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote, in which Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan — in the title role — was partnered by first viola Scott Dickinson and leader Laura Samuel, but the 1897 work was preceded by two very thoughtfully-chosen works that are equally pictorial.

The first of these was the ten minute Serenata - Eine kleine Sonnenmusik by Romanian Myrian Marbe from 1974, a playful ten-minute evocation of dawn that specifically references the Nachtmusik of Mozart, and requires the fourteen string players on the platform to add bird calls to the mix as well as small percussion to the larger kit being played by the three percussionists on stage and one in the balcony. He was joined upstairs by five more strings and two flutes in what was a surround-sound experience, with Barry Deacon’s solo clarinet and Lynda Cochrane’s celesta crucial onstage solo voices. Once again this was Volkov bringing something of his Tectonics weekend of new music into the orchestra’s season, with a great deal of the shape of the music down to his improvisatory direction.

Prokofiev’s ballet suite Chout (The Buffoon), was perhaps the greater discovery of the evening, however. This music may have remained relatively unknown because of the lack of success of the performance for which it was written, but it is the Russian composer at his narrative and dramatic peak. With echoes of much better-known Prokofiev, it is music worthy to sit alongside both Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet, for all the comic absurdity of its storyline. With strings of many colours and lovely character portraits from the winds, the suite was a superb showcase for the talents all across the stage.

As too, of course, was the Strauss, with bassoons again to the fore, percussionist Dave Lyons taking a trip to the balcony for the wind machine, and the cello section and Helen Thomson’s harp realising the more romantic of the old knight’s obsessions. Composed immediately before Elin Heldenleben, its more transparent story-telling is a helpful hint not to take the later work too seriously.