sun 21/07/2024

CBSO, Volkov, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - Mahler goes Bauhaus | reviews, news & interviews

CBSO, Volkov, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - Mahler goes Bauhaus

CBSO, Volkov, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - Mahler goes Bauhaus

A Ninth Symphony stripped bare of schmaltz, in a thought provoking programme

Ilan Volkov: form following functionAstrid Ackermann

Just over a decade ago it was predicted by those supposedly in the know that Ilan Volkov would succeed Sakari Oramo as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In the event, the gig went to Andris Nelsons, and it was probably for the best.

An artistic temperament as inquisitive and uncompromising as Volkov’s probably wouldn’t have been well suited to the box-ticking and base-touching involved in planning full length seasons for an orchestra with the CBSO's civic responsibilities. Which is not to say that the orchestra doesn’t have a noticeable rapport with Volkov – or, indeed, that any orchestra wouldn’t benefit from regular visits from a conductor who gets his kicks from pairing (as Volkov plans to do in Glasgow next March) Brahms’s German Requiem with Luigi Nono’s Per Bastiana Tai-Yang Cheng.

In short, Volkov’s programmes are never less than thought provoking, and in Birmingham we heard his solution to the eternal problem of what to pair with Mahler's Ninth Symphony – namely, to preface that last testament of Viennese romanticism with two central European composers from the generation that should, in a less terrible world, have succeeded Mahler. Gideon Klein and Hans Krása were both murdered in the Holocaust, and Krása’s Overture for Small Orchestra was actually written in the camp at Theresienstadt. No amount of brisk Stravinskian bustle and brightly clattering piano can quite help the music break clear of the horror hanging over it, and it ends on a quiet but devastating open question. Volkov set about it purposefully, relishing its surprisingly bright palette of colours. There are no basses, pairs of clarinets and trumpets are the entire wind complement, and at one point the strings skittered,col legno across the score like a swarm of fireflies.

Klein’s Partita for String Orchestra is a weightier score, and the dominant voice here is Janáček. Volkov made the most of its bristling rhythmic ostinatos, lit by sudden surges of sunlit lyricism. But he seemed strangely detached in the melancholy central movement, a set of variations on a Moravian folk song. The phrasing felt a little constrained: would that have been the case if the piece had been performed by the forces for which Klein originally wrote it – a string trio? This arrangement for string orchestra dates from the Nineties, and while no-one can question the necessity of putting Klein’s music in front of the widest possible audience, I wonder whether the music itself might not be better served in its original form.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

As for the Mahler; well, you don’t expect Bernsteinish emotional indulgence from Ilan Volkov, and from the opening bars – clearly placed, crisply articulated – it was very clear that we weren’t going to get it. Volkov assembled the symphony’s textures as if they were by Webern: constructivist rather than expressionist, with little room for the sentimental or the numinous. No languishing sighs or fading heartbeats here. Quaver upbeats were snapped smartly into place and muted horn pedals crisscrossed the first movement’s huge structure like girders. The gains in terms of transparency were striking: flute motifs were audible through surging tuttis and the harps became load-bearing elements of the musical argument, rather than glittering ornaments. Adolf Loos would have approved.

The two inner movements shared the same forceful clarity. Volkov refused to indulge the musical stereotypes – ländler, Habsburg regimental bands, Strauss waltzes – that Mahler so brilliantly appropriates. Instead, the motivic argument continued, occasionally underlined with the brilliant neon marker of the glockenspiel and Joanna Patton’s fearless E flat clarinet, plus blocks of thick black felt-tip from the brass. But the problem with Volkov’s decision to use the orchestra as a source of texture and colour rather than letting emotion have its head (the strings, in particular, played throughout with as much expression as Volkov would allow them) was particularly pronounced in movements that rely so much on a sense of extramusical meaning. More contrast might have been helpful; the music didn’t always sound as if it knew where it was headed.

Which left a lot hanging on the finale, and here, too, Volkov was uncompromising. Not for Volkov the protracted, tearstained death-song; instead, he shaped a massive contrapuntal cortège, coolly but powerfully sustained, making full use of Mahler’s massive silences, and crowned by a final cadence that – hushed as it was – nonetheless sounded like a logical and decisive QED rather than a breathless fade to black. Only a masochist would want to hear every Mahler Nine played this way, but I’m glad to have heard this one. And since shameless milking of the final silence has practically become an Olympic sport for conductors, I’m also glad to have seen what Volkov did after the final note. He simply closed the score and gestured to the orchestra to stand up.


I was at this concert and the above review - which are supposed to be an honest representation of the concert - is a diisgace - gutless in my opinion. Why no mention of the appalling disruption that ruined the concert. Of course it wasn't the fault of the disabled person, but that of his carer, who shamefully and with no respect to the 1000+ who had paid for their ticket, did nothing. There is a sound proof room at the back of the Hall where they could have sat and listened to the concert without upsetting the audience and even more importantly the Orchestra & Conductor. This concert was recorded by the BBC. I can't see how they can possibly broadcast it after what happened throughout the evening. By all means write reviews but they have to be honest. This review is most definately NOT honest.

I couldn’t agree more. The reason that the finish was so prompt was nothing to do with interpretation simply a recognition of the fact that the piece had been ruined. Was the critic actually there ?

I assume that Richard decided to confine his comments to the interpretation and performance. However, as you point out, the disruption and its effect on performers and audience cannot be ignored. In my opinion, the gesture and expression by Ilan Volkov at the end was one of resignation and "so much for all that work".

Many thanks for your comments, gentlemen. Tim, I'd be happy to discuss this the next time we meet. Over the two decades in which we've been attending many of the same concerts we've had some very civilised and enjoyable chats and I definitely prefer that Tim Walton to the one I see online and in print - and whom I barely recognise as the same person.

But to address the point: I was sitting roughly four rows in front of the person to whom you refer and I can not honestly say that their spontaneous noises "ruined" the performance for me. I was there to write about the music, and I see no point - have never seen any point - in singling out for public shame the behaviour of an individual who was not acting maliciously or carelessly, and whose response (unlike the eternal "shush"-ers, the tutters, and the non-switchers-off of mobile phones) was clearly born out of a sincere response to the music. I would not wish to live in a society where the disabled or infirm were excluded from live concerts, or as Tim Walton (if it actually IS Tim) suggests, removed from the hall and sealed in an isolation box.

I urge you to reflect upon your comments. If Mahler means anything beyond a string of beautiful sounds, then human frailty, tolerance and compassion are surely at the centre of that meaning. The staff at Symphony Hall did what they could, and acted with professionalism and tact, as did Volkov and the orchestra. When we attend a concert, we agree to take part in a public event, with all the imperfections that entails. The place for crystal-clear, pristine performances is at home with a recording.

In short: as far as I'm concerned, the occasional distraction such as happened last night is a price that I am glad to pay in order to live in a decent society. And I would much rather be talking about the music...

Hi Richard, Firstly I did not criticise the disabled person and nwever would. It was the selfish thoughless carer that was at fault. It was not accasional it was almost continous in the latter part of the Symphony. If audience members turn up late they are not allowed inm so as not to disturb those who have managed to get there on time. If someone needs a carer, then fine, but the carer should understand that they should try not to disturb the rest of the audience or they should take action to minimise the disturbance. This carer did neither, just stuck two fingers up, figuratively speaking, at everyone else. Whet ever the reason why should 99.99 % of the audience have their experience spoilt because of one inconsiderate carer. I have attended far more concerts than you - about to reach 7000 and I have to pay for my tickets. Perhaps you are covering yourself because you might not get free review tickets if you make a fuss. On the CBSO Facebook page far more people are agreeing to my comments than those that are not. the staff were probably frightened to do anything because of the liberal minded lefties that might object. If people fidget, talk use mobiles around me then I say shuch of ask the stewards to deal with it. I am quite happy to continue to do this and if the wishy washy lefties don't like it, then tough. It's my money and if my limited pension funds are used to go to a concert, then I will object if my enjoyment is spoilt.

This is a very tricky issue. Whilst I would applaud the inclusiveness in practice, I have no idea how I would have reacted at the end of Mahler 9, which relies on silence between soft sounds perhaps more than any other work. But you seriously weaken your case, Mr Walton, with references to 'liberal minded lefties' and 'wishy washy lefties'. I'd like to think that people would fall into two different camps on this issue, and somewhere in between, without reference to their politics. But I agree that the question needed addressing. Perhaps source for an article in itself, not a review.

I am sorry that you do not accept the CBSO's explanation that their staff did everything to prepare the carer for possible consequences in the second half of the concert and offered an alternative place in the hall. Faced with refusal, they could do no more, in all civility. Other comments on the CBSO's Facebook page throw up some interesting points.

It would be interesting to have Mr Volkov's response after the event. Difficult to know if audience interpretations of his attitude at the end are correct or not.

I live nowhere near Birmingham and am a Pensioner but love the SH and attend as often as I can. I also love Mahler 9 and - given how rarely it is performed - try to hear it anywhere within 100 miles.. I was not aware of Volkov, and I am a music lover as opposed to an expert so I cannot compare and analyse different interpretations of it, suffice to say I thought this reading was superb. vastly more enjoyable than, for example, the Elder/Halle combination I last heard On the question of Volkov's potential thoughts : By chance, leaving the venue I saw Volkov exiting the SH and took the liberty of stopping him to congratulate him on the performance. I said that I had found it "beautiful", his response was "the parts you could hear were beautiful but the parts you couldn't hear were also beautiful" I said "was it distracting ?" and he replied "literally. yes, but we are all music lovers so it was fine"

RIchard. One excellent reply to my Facebook post might be responding to you. Adam Foster Tim - I must say that I totally agree with you. I feel like this thread is a footpath full of eggshells just waiting for someone with an opinion to walk over. Any individual or group who cannot conduct themselves within the parameters of expensing everyone else's experience should be ejected. I'd also like to point out that the people on here saying it actually made their experience better; should be singing kum by yah cross-legged in a field high on LSD, or throwing paint at a wall and calling it art

Thank you for your comments, David, and Derek. Rather against my better judgement, I just wanted to make a couple of further observations.

As regards Volkov's final gesture; yes, that was merely my reading of his intention (it could hardly have been anyone else's), but it seemed to me to fit exactly with the interpretation he'd just delivered. And whatever the motivation, I still found it infinitely more sensitive and satisfying than the silence-milking grandstanding in which so many conductors indulge. A development to be welcomed.

And finally, Tim: I think you've made your position very clear. True, you have attended more concerts than me (I don't think anyone involved in classical music in Birmingham could fail to be aware of your concert-going statistics). But I have duty-managed many more concerts than you, and in that capacity I have had to handle numerous situations like that on Thursday night - dealing with unhappy individuals on both sides of the incident, and attempting to address their concerns fairly and courteously. I have seen at first hand the embarrassment and distress that it has caused, usually through no fault of the individual concerned or their carer(s), and I see no benefit in putting up further barriers to their future enjoyment of live music. Believe me, they find it difficult enough as it is; and no individual concerned is usually more aware of the issues involved than the carer.

The situation was regrettable; it was also unavoidable. That being the case, I can think of 101 purely musical things about the concert that would all have merited discussion ahead of this issue, had the review allowed space. I don't dispute that it was unfortunate and clearly, for many people, frustrating. But when writing on the record it's a matter of professional responsibility, as well as common decency, to bear in mind that one may well be unaware of both sides of the story.

I have to disagree, Richard, with the notion that this situation was "unavoidable". According to every account of events from anybody who was there, it is unanimously apparent that disruptions had already occurred before the Mahler even begun. It's one thing to intentionally neglect to mention the significant disruptions in the main article at all, but to later suggest that they were inevitable and unpreventable is the single most absurd notion that I've read regarding this concert as yet. There are points which can be debated, morally or ethically, but I'm of the strong conviction that the majority of patrons present all had one single simple solution in mind. Whether or not this situation needed to be avoided, or whether this be permissible as mere part and parcel of the concert experience, allows at least for some, as far as I've seen, questionable opinions on what constitutes fairness across the board, and whose rights as a concertgoer outweighs another's.

On the front page of the programme it says and I quote; "Any noise (such whispering or coughing) can be very distracting - the acoustics of the Hall will highlight any such sound. It seems disingenuous in the extreme to say that whispering or coughing can be distracting but tuneless singing of "Five gold rings" can be ignored. Certainly my experience of the concert was not what I had hoped or paid £40 a seat for. I feel that some compensation is due to members of the audience on that evening.

I was also at the Mahler concert and can confirm the noise was very annoying consisting of mostly incoherent wailing. The disabled gentleman seemed to find the quietest moments in the symphony to be the ones to howl the loudest, although every movement had its whining accompaniment. The mans outbursts may have been those of rapture and if pleasures were merely additive his enjoyment at the performance may have outweighed the thousand or so other people in the audience. The gentleman was not to blame, he was reacting at some level to the music, although neither he or his helper had any idea of what was appropriate in that situation. I blame the policies of Symphony Hall management, where the door staff were unable, or more likely afraid, to make a common sense decision. Maybe, since the incident was rare there was no protocol in dealing with it or rather in our media savvy times they were terrified that removing an unwilling disabled person would create bad publicity. Of course, it would. How will any future incident be handled. If there is no policy, Symphony Hall management should invite people with all types of neurodiversity to attend CBSO concerts, those with Tourettes should be particularly encouraged. The combined noise could create a new genre of music that the successors of Stockhausen or Boulez would be proud of and more importantly the CBSO could sell it on an inclusive label to make up for the lack of ticket sales from the elitists that had previously attended their concerts. I find it difficult to sympathise with the comments made by Richard Bratby. There is a difference between listening to the music and howling along with the music. Maybe if I had taken ecstasy before the performance it would have been, in my drug addled state, the greatest Mahler performance of all time but I would have not been listening to the music. Maybe the CBSO's performances will be a vanguard for a new utopia where the very notion of disagreement will be expunged in the warm glow of our shared humanity. They should give that gentleman a free season ticket next to Richard Bratby as a reward for his empathy and understanding. Although, they will include a free set of ear plugs, just in case.

And still it rolls on - some comments more thoughtful than others; but still no great interest, apparently, in the actual music-making that night. My conversations with concertgoers and staff in the days since this concert suggest that it may be a generational issue. Younger people, by and large, have responded with sympathy rather than indignation. In Thursday night’s BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the concert the issue was handled with compassion and tact; the responses I’ve seen online have been overwhelmingly generous in spirit and supportive of the BBC’s decision to broadcast it, extraneous noises and all.
Meanwhile, I repeat that this problem - namely, a (unavoidably, and through no fault of their own) disruptive individual is requested courteously to move, and declines to do so - is insoluble in a civilised fashion. No-one here, or in other forums, has suggested a single workable (not to say legal) solution, and in fact the consensus seems to be that the individual should somehow have been removed against their will.
So come on then, all you amateur house managers out there: tell us how it's done. Does an electric wheelchair roll freely or will it need to be physically lifted? How many staff will you allocate to that? How will you keep other safety functions around the hall properly staffed while they're diverted to that duty? How many staff to restrain the carer, who may or may not wish to co-operate? And how to muffle them as they're removed, without any further incursion on your precious silence? Or should the whole process be outsourced to the Police? How much disruption do you anticipate that would cause to the concert?
And what will be your official response when, the following morning, headlines appear around the world (because this will be far bigger news than merely a bit of background noise in a Mahler symphony; it'll be retweeted globally within minutes of appearing on Norman Lebrecht's blog) about the classical venue that effectively assaulted a vulnerable, paying audience member in the cause of preserving the illusion that a public concert is a digital download? You'd better have your spokespeople briefed and your statement drafted. You might also be well advised to consult a lawyer (an excellent use of limited arts funding). “Scared of bad publicity”? Yes, because livelihoods rest upon reputations. That funding cut just became a lot more politically palatable. Suddenly, no orchestra. No hall. No live Mahler at all. Are you comfortable with that outcome?
Well? I assume you've thought this through? Because several of you seem very ready to allocate blame. I await your solutions with interest. And I will continue to review concerts in a way that accords with my conviction that in a tolerant society - whatever the temporary personal inconvenience - some things matter more than music. Other opinions are, of course, available.  

"Don't pay too much attention to the sounds, for if you do, you may miss the music" - George Ives (father of Charles).

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters