Music review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Georgia Jarman, Royal Albert Hall, London

Ilan Volkov conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
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ILAN Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened this Proms programme with a new work by the Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith entitled Nuages, and no critic could improve on her own eloquent description of it. The orchestral images in her mind as she composed it included “the veiled haze of strings, tangled thicket of woodwinds, and soft fog of percussion”.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra & Georgia Jarman, Royal Albert Hall, London ****

“I was interested in a quiet lushness,” she wrote in her programme-note, “as in the weaving of light and shade in an overgrown garden.”

But the effect of her tone-poem was somniferous; for all the craftsmanship which had gone into its creation, it simply came over as background music. It costs a lot of money to hire 60 orchestral musicians to learn and play a new work, and I can’t imagine this 15-minute effort ever earning its place in the sun.

All of which points to a perennial flaw in Proms thinking. Time and again they blow large amounts of money on new orchestral works which sink without trace: far better, surely, to divide the available subsidy into smaller parts. One orchestral work could thus equal five or six works for small chamber ensemble, each of which would be infinitely cheaper to repeat.

Ironically the next work in the programme was another tone-poem, Janacek’s The Fiddler’s Child composed a century ago. This was everything which Catlin’s work was not. Packed with drama, Janacek’s work, with its characteristic effects, came over brilliantly, as did Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian symphony. But the high point of the evening was soprano Georgia Jarman’s performance in Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz, a gorgeous work sung ravishingly.

MICHAEL CHURCH