Grisey, Dufourt, Boulez and... Beethoven? It might have been an inspired programming choice, the intricate orchestration of the contemporary French works contrasting with the directness of Beethoven’s textures. However, it was this much-loved audience favourite which proved to be the weak link in what was otherwise an excellent performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov at the Barbican.

Hugues Dufourt © Astrid Karger
Hugues Dufourt
© Astrid Karger

The first half brought together two works from composers associated with “spectral” music, Gérard Grisey and Hugues Dufourt, both of which were UK premières. Grisey’s Mégalithes predates his first “spectral” composition by five years; a student work composed in 1969, it only received its first performance in 2009. Written for fifteen brass players (six seated on stage and four pairs scattered around the auditorium), the piece is an essay in instrumental technique. Mégalithes juxtaposes nine sections of variable length, each exploring different textural combinations and sonic effects. From a cacophonous volley of dialogue across the hall to an extended tuba solo, Grisey makes full use of the spatial separation of the players and pushes their virtuosity to the max. The brass of the BBC SO certainly rose to the challenge, embracing the rawness of the piece along with its more sensual moments.

A large portion of Hugues Dufourt’s output is stimulated by paintings, but On the Wings of the Morning took its inspiration from one of art historian Emily Vermeule’s 1979 lectures. Vermeule noted that ancient Greek art frequently linked the gods of love and death (Eros and Thanatos) in terrifying hybrid figures, and Dufourt’s piece delves into this surreal imagery. The dense and elaborate orchestral texture constantly shifts and evolves, making it hard to latch on to a reference point; fragments of melodic ideas emerge before sinking back below the surface. For much of the piece, the piano soloist is left to forge their own path through the orchestra, somewhat detached as if an observer; however, orchestra and piano drift into the same orbit at points, their sentiments aligning.

Nicolas Hodges’ playing captured the sense of resolute determination needed to propel the piece onwards; although episodic, the work unfolds as one gestural sweep. After the saturated texture of the opening, tensions mount until conflict erupts (complete with insistent percussion and unruly brass) and then is suddenly dissipated. The coda finds an island of tranquillity, with the ensemble reduced to just piano and cymbal, before a brief dialogue between orchestra and vibraphone provide an enigmatic close.

The luxurious textures of Cummings ist der Dichter (a nod to Debussy and Ravel) made it an ideal bedfellow for the Dufourt and offered yet another showcase for the BBC SO’s ear for colour. Ilan Volkov’s interpretation emphasised the dual nature of the piece, divided between dreamy contemplation and disruptive exclamations. Although they were overpowered towards the start of the performance, the BBC Singers took advantage of the percussive potential of the text, volleying consonants between singers in a way reminiscent of the earlier Grisey. Their sound was lithe yet full-bodied, complemented by the characterful contribution of the BBC SO. Volkov matched the harmonic crystallisation with a sense of expansiveness, lending an ethereal quality to the end of the piece.

Ilan Volkov
Ilan Volkov
Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 seemed to be on the programme to allow the orchestra to let loose after the previous three pieces. This turned out to be the problem: the ensemble was rough around the edges, and Volkov’s interpretational choices often didn’t pay off. He lingered over certain entries and rushed through others; the fugue in the second movement was limp, while the romp through the finale sacrificed precise articulation and intonation for enthusiasm and vigour. It seemed a shame to finish the concert with such a throwaway conclusion after the exceptional preceding performances.

****1