Ilan Volkov led the BBC SSO in a bewitching concert, dominated by Charles Koechlin's ode to Hollywood
Celebrity worship is clearly nothing new. Despite hobnobbing with the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Satie, oddball French composer Charles Koechlin forged very much his own individual path in early 20th-century Paris, and in among his well-heeled socialism and nature-loving pantheism, he discovered a remarkable passion for early talkies.
So smitten was he with movie stars that he wrote a seven-movement symphony in their honour, which the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra took a punt on, as the culmination of a colourful, magical concert under principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov.
It’s just the sort of neglected, off-the-wall repertoire that Volkov has championed in the past, to revelatory effect. But was it worth the risk this time?
There’s no getting away from the fact that Koechlin’s Seven Stars Symphony is an oddity, but it’s hard to imagine a more sincere, committed account than Volkov’s. Koechlin takes an often unexpected slant on his movie stars – Douglas Fairbanks gets a diaphanous, Thief of Baghdad-style oriental fantasy rather than a swashbuckling showpiece, for example; and Greta Garbo is described in an icily austere movement depicting her Scandinavian origins instead of anything sensuous or seductive.
If Volkov’s account erred on the side of carefulness, it was nevertheless true to Koechlin’s intentions, never over-egging his unpredictable picture-painting, let alone sending it up. Most effective was the composer’s extraordinary requiem for Emil Jannings, intended as a musical postlude to The Blue Angel and sending Jannings’s tragic Professor Rath to eternal repose – which drew an unapologetically bleak, harrowing account from Volkov.
In the end, Koechlin’s Seven Stars Symphony might have most interest as a historical document – as much of the composer’s unique blend of French sophistication, neo-Classicism and more abrasive avant-garde styles as for its paeans to the stars of the early silver screen. But there was still much to admire in the BBC SSO’s sharply etched, passionate account.
Before the interval, there had been plenty more colour in Unsuk Chin’s wildly inventive Clarinet Concerto, given a hugely charismatic, athletic performance by its dedicatee, Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku. And here, Volkov and the BBC SSO seemed in their element, picking apart the work’s intricate orchestration to beguiling effect.
It was ironic, though, that the concert’s most magical work – Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with which Volkov opened – felt a bit too careful and controlled in his hands to be truly fantastical. Nonetheless, it was a bewitching evening.
Listen online to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this concert for the next four weeks at bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2667