Ilan Volkov, a regular guest conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is a passionate advocate form contemporary and modern music. His programmes with his current orchestra, the Iceland Symphony, and his previous one, the BBC Scottish Symphony, often consist entirely of such works. This concert, featuring works from the 20th and 21st centuries, was ideally suited to Volkov’s lucid and intelligent conducting.

Ilan Volkov © Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov
© Iceland Symphony Orchestra

The featured contemporary work was b9 Part One, which was an intriguing concept on paper. In the composer John Oswald’s own words, b9 is “a condensation into 30 minutes of the six to seven hours of music that comprise the nine completed symphonies” of Beethoven, and the first part features the music of the first five symphonies.

I was not familiar with Oswald’s work before this concert. He appears to have specialised in what he refers to as “Rascali Klepitoire”, his own brand of recomposition of works by well-known classical composers for a variety of differently sized ensembles. In b9, all the notes are Beethoven’s own. The familiar strains of the introduction to Beethoven’s First Symphony opened the piece and what followed was essentially a remix of the thematic elements that comprise the symphonies, shorn of “the repetitions and redundancies of the original scores”. A bold assertion from Oswald! We heard more of the melodies that feature in the slower movements of the symphonies, implying that Oswald is not keen on the short motivic elements that characterise the faster movements. The seamless juxtapositions were impressively conceived and played, such that if you closed your eyes you could easily imagine that this was a digitally-created remix.

Various audience members (myself included) laughed at some of the more amusing transitions, such as a comical accelerando segue from the funeral march of the Eroica symphony into its scherzo. In light of this evident entertainment it was hard to dismiss b9 entirely. However, robbing Beethoven’s great symphonies of their gripping development sections and their structural integrity ultimately removes their purpose. Volkov’s handling of the material was really quite electrifying, particularly in the Eroica section, and the performance made me want to hear him conducting Beethoven’s symphonies in their entirety.

Earlier, we heard Steven Osborne in a barnstorming performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto, featured as part of the CBSO’s celebration of the composer’s centenary year. Osborne and Volkov have already demonstrated their excellent way with this piece in a Gramophone Award-winning recording. That magic was recreated in this concert with Osborne generating excitement and momentum from the first notes of the opening Toccata. Osborne seems to unleash energy as if he is a coiled spring. He was supported by an incisive and virtuosic CBSO though he was never overpowered, even in the fullest orchestral passages.

The concerto demonstrates the clear influences of Ravel on the British composer in its gleaming orchestration. Elsewhere, we feel the influence of Prokofiev in elements such as the sardonic waltz second movement and its somewhat cheeky ending. Osborne’s virtuosity was matched by a more serious and reflective mood in the slow third movement, which segued into the grimly comical march of the finale. In the closing pages Osborne’s hands became a blur in a jaw-dropping display of rapid-fire double octaves. Osborne gave a nod of acknowledgement to Ravel in his sweet encore from the Mother Goose suite.

The concert closed with an astonishing performance of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 6, lesser known by audiences than some of his more popular symphonies. This orchestra has an impeccable Sibelius pedigree, having undertaken complete cycles of the symphonies with both Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo. The concert had actually got off to a shakier start with the tone poem The Bard, in which the players settled as the short and atmospheric piece went on. But the change in their sound for the symphony was immediate, with singing, shimmering strings and cool, piquant wind sonorities often underpinned by a deliciously gurgling bass clarinet.

Volkov was absolutely in command of this score, in what I can only describe as one of the most perfectly realised interpretations of a work I have ever heard live in concert. Tempi were swift, on the whole (excepting the contemplative second movement), and transitions (which only the finest conductors make an art of in Sibelius) absolutely seamless. Many of Sibelius’ more abrupt stops in the music seemed less so as Volkov and the players tapered phrases with great refinement. The overall balance was exceptional, apart from a curiously inaudible harp in the third movement, and it was obvious from Volkov’s gestures that he was tirelessly working to ensure the climactic moments in the final movement did not peak early. Never has this work seemed so closely related to its successor, the fully contiguous seventh symphony. A moving occasion.