Music review: BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow

NEVER having experienced an LSD trip, I can only imagine it as something similar to hearing Richard Strauss’ madcap tone poem Don Quixote.

SSO conductor Ilan Volkov struck a balance between precision and recklessness
SSO conductor Ilan Volkov struck a balance between precision and recklessness

BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow ****

It is, in every sense, the set of “fantastic variations on a knightly theme” described in the full title: the wild extremes of the hero’s imagined exploits – their horror, whimsy and sheer lunatic visionary distortion – expressed through music so aberrant, at times so agonisingly discordant, that fantasy and reality become impossible to distinguish.

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In Thursday’s performance by the BBC SSO, Ilan Volkov – with cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan dizzily flamboyant as the eponymous hero and SSO lead violist Scott Dickinson as his subservient sidekick Sancho Panza – echoed that ambivalence by striking a teasing balance between dogmatic precision and swashbuckling recklessness.

Actually, he could have encouraged more of the latter – an embracing radiant sheen from the orchestra to counterbalance the riotous sheep and other pictorial literals Strauss indulges in. Otherwise, what a joyous outing for a relative concert hall rarity.

It was the conclusion to a wholly eccentric programme. Volkov had opened with the ornithological cacophony of Romanian composer Myriam Marbe’s Serenata – Eine kleine Sonnenmusik, a tantalising surround sound menagerie in which the musicians doubled on bird whistles and somehow created structural satisfaction out of sonic chaos.

Then the satirical grotesquerie of Prokofiev’s Suite from the ballet Chout (The Buffon), its galumphing characterisations brought vividly to life, and never a moment, even at its most lustrous, where Prokofiev’s pungent, sardonic undertones lost their grizzly bite. The perfect springboard to Don Quixote.