A premiere from Nicola LeFanu (born 1947, daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy) formed an emotionally uncompromising centrepiece to two works suffused with late-Romantic sensibilities.
Belonging to Act Three of Der ferne Klang (produced in 1912) and first heard in Vienna in 1909 as a stand-alone concert item, Franz Schreker’s substantial Nachtstück (seventeen minutes here) is a luxurious blend of German idealism and French impressionism. These aspects were beautifully underlined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov in an ardent account in which sumptuous strings perfectly served the music’s restless dreamscape in which the composer attempted “to portray spiritual moods and struggles during a sleepless night.” Volkov steered the music’s succession of melodic reminiscences with clarity, avoiding the indulgence that its ravishing beauty might encourage and responded fluidly to emotional surges. Schreker’s opulent scoring was lovingly conveyed and proved a feast for the senses.
At its premiere, Nachtstück was considered strikingly modern, a quality not overly present in LeFanu’s new work. Scored for large orchestra (including an array of percussion), The Crimson Bird sets four verses from John Fuller’s poem Siege (with links to Euripides’s The Trojan Women) in an unbroken movement of close on half-an-hour. The narrative traces the fears a mother has for her baby son and whether in a nameless war-torn city he will grow up to become a hero or a murderer. The boy doesn’t live long enough for this question to be answered.
Rachel Nicholls was the ideal soloist, negotiating the melodically angular and rhythmically complex writing with ease, her rich and even timbre readily encompassing the two-octave span. To Fuller’s graphic text LeFanu responds with music of fierce intensity, its expressive lyricism matching the angst of the words.
With Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony it was disappointing not to have the first-movement’s exposition repeat, although the composer omits it on his recording. That said the delivery of the second subject was clean but not especially heartfelt. There was much to admire though in this unsentimental reading in which Volkov brought out motivic transformations in the development section with feverish excitement. Horn and two harps were suitably warm at the beginning of the Adagio, as was Stephen Bryant’s very eloquent violin, but it was the gorgeous, gold-plated string tone that impressed, and Volkov moulded the fast music into a logical whole. The Finale blazed with energy, its cumulative tensions admirably handled even if there could have been greater abandon.