For much of the later 20th century, new virtuoso concertos went into hiding. Maybe the old Romantic model had run out of energy or, more likely, the genre disappeared under the shadow of composing philosophies with other concerns. But, as that shadow retreated, concerto-like ideas emerged and many composers of the past 10 years, Kevin Volans included, have witnessed an upsurge in concerto commissions. True, the nature of the beast changed behind the shadow. The concept of a heroic individual pitted against the mass lost its immediacy, appearing, if at all, largely as a conscious reference to the past. Virtuosity, though, is another matter. Extreme playing techniques are more widely owned: virtuoso performances can be expected from orchestras and soloists alike.
If you consider the split-second timing that separates piano and orchestra from the start of Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto No. 3, you will get the drift. Volans is a professional pianist, so he knows how far he can push the boundaries and is aware that other pianists might push them further. His Second Piano Concerto (2006) was written for Marc-André Hamelin, who initially told him, ‘I think you’ve overestimated my ability’ – a compliment really, coming from a musician of legendary ability, and of course Hamelin went on to give an acclaimed and thrilling premiere. Volans stretched the orchestra too, after his Trio Concerto the previous year had engulfed the soloists in pulsing swirls of full-on, flat-out orchestration that seemed to pass through Ravel and Stravinsky and out on the far side.
All this, however, has to sit in the context of Volans’s distinctive way of composing, which he calls ‘anti-conceptual’. In practice this means he has no idea what will happen to a piece until he starts it. Next day he starts where he has left off and never reorders the music. No two pieces behave the same way.
In this concerto he wanted to balance narrative and static characters in the music, each interrupting the other. It’s hardly a dialogue. The piano announces two big, rhetorical chords to set up a short repeating pattern. The orchestra, featuring another piano, crashes in with a rhythm of its own. But they are having their separate say about much the same thing – the orchestral piano even sounds as if it is trying to emulate the soloist. And from that hint of engagement, so different from the formal turn-taking of Classical and Romantic concertos, however confrontational, stems much of the work’s edgy energy.
Volans’s music often has a spare, bleak aspect, helping to define pithy themes and gestures that lodge in the mind. For a 20-minute single movement at as fast tempo, this concerto is surprisingly easy to follow. If you want signposts, look out for repeated heavy triplets in a low register, insistent high flutes pecking at the same note in rapid threes and, later on, phrases that scamper up and down and rolling drum interventions. Towards the end some of these reappear, if only in different perspectives, as does a subtle quotation from Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. But this isn’t a Liszt-style tying together of threads and references. Volans doesn’t do ‘development’ and mistrusts the whole idea of ‘form’. When the music is ready to stop, it does so without fuss, as in African music. On the way, in some of the concerto’s moments of rhythmic disorder there is an additional homage to Volans’s late teacher Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose anniversary happens to fall on 22 August – not that the music sounds like Stockhausen either.
© Robert Maycock
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