With a disappointingly sparse audience, this Sunday evening Prom probably suffered from its programme being too clever for its own good, despite being well executed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor, Ilan Volkov.

Georgia Jarman © Claire McAdams
Georgia Jarman
© Claire McAdams

A first half consisting of music by Szymanowski, Janáček and Linda Catlin Smith, followed by one of least-performed Tchaikovsky symphonies, was always going to be a gamble on what was probably the last night of the summer holidays for many people. The world premiere of Smith’s Nuages began the concert in a peculiar light. The 15-minute piece was born of a fascination with a layered approach to composition, here representing the layered haze of a sky of clouds. The soft colours and varying textures did a very convincing job of painting an aural landscape of a cloudy horizon, but as a snapshot study of inky skies, 15 minutes seemed to be labouring the point in the absence of a convincing sense of direction. This would be enormously effective accompanying music to another art form, but in isolation it felt somewhat out of place in the concert hall.

The rest of the first half had deeper seams of riches to be admired, first in Janáček’s Fiddler’s Child of 1913, and then in Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz of 1911-14. The Janáček was an evocative and entertaining tale of the ghostly fiddler returning to his erstwhile instrument and son. The story’s various characters were richly depicted by solos for violin (the fiddler), oboe (his child) and front four violas (the peasants). The darkness of the story and the music immediately brought to mind the same composer’s The House of the Dead, with all the same human tragedy of that opera.

American soprano Georgia Jarman was a flamboyant soloist for the eight Love Songs, a cycle inspired by excitable Orientalism thanks to the composer’s fascination with all things Middle-Eastern. Volkov and Jarman paced the music with meticulous attention to the text, pausing to highlight choice lines and rolling onwards elsewhere. The troublesome Royal Albert Hall acoustics probably didn’t help, but it was difficult to catch much clarity (or indeed volume) in the text. Her stage presence went some way to counter this, though, seeming to inhabit the text enthusiastically, and her sound was attractively pure and rounded. The technical demands of the vocal score, including some uncomfortable leaps, were met with aplomb. The latter movements, the unsettlingly martial Drinking Song and the tragic Hafiz’s Grave, were the best of the set, Jarman singing with exquisite control in the latter.

Where the pre-interval buffet of short, slightly disjointed music never really let the orchestra hit its stride, Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony gave ample opportunity for orchestral drama. The opening horn solo was flawlessly handled, and Volkov created a well-constructed sense of rising tension through the first movement’s introduction. The Allegro vivo was crisp and punchy, the rear-ranged double basses providing vigorous engine room propulsion for the rest of the orchestra. The Andantino, taken at a relatively slow pace, was full of playful charm, and the Scherzo found some invigorating muscular agility. The noble opening lines of the Finale unfolded into a joyfully vivacious Allegro, with characterful woodwind solos (memorably flute) providing elegant contrast to the bombast of the brass and timpani.

****1