Prom 17: BBC Scottish SO/Ilan Volkov review – lyrical, surreal and deeply poignant

Beauty and provocation … Jennifer Walshe performing The Site of an Investigation with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra during Prom 17 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Photograph: Mark Allan

Proms 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Jennifer Walshe’s off-the-wall requiem The Site of an Investigation was a hugely impressive existential study burnished with brilliant solos

Fri 29 Jul 2022 16.56 BST

At first sight there was little in common between the works by Jennifer Walshe and Brahms in Ilan Volkov’s prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. But both are memorials: Brahms was prompted to compose A German Requiem by the death of his mother in 1865, while Walshe’s The Site of an Investigation dates from 2018 (this was its London premiere) and is dedicated to her friend, the actor Stephen Swift, who died in that year.

There, though, the similarities end. Walshe’s piece is part melodrama, part music theatre, part scena, with the composer herself delivering a text assembled from a huge range of internet sources. Text, she says, is “like the canary in the coal mine … an early-warning system of how culture is changing.” And so the 26 sections of The Site of an Investigation range across the obsessions and evils of modern life, taking in racism and misogyny, beach parties and microplastics, Mars landings and artificial intelligence. It’s delivered by Walshe in tones that range from hectoring declamation to the tenderest lullaby. There are surreal moments too: at one point two percussionists wrap a model giraffe in paper, their amplified rustling adding to the sound world; at another they assemble a wall of transparent bricks, like blocks of ice, which they then proceed to knock over.

The orchestra’s role is mostly a supporting one – sometimes just providing suspended chords under Walshe’s monologues, but occasionally providing convulsive punctuation or wrapping itself sensuously around the more lyrical moments. There’s certainly beauty as well as provocation. The ending, with a text discussing whether artificial intelligence will ever be able to recreate those who have died, is deeply moving. In a strange, off-the-wall way, it is a really impressive achievement.

Ilan Volkov conducts the BBCSSO and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Photograph: Mark Allan

Volkov and the BBCSSO were just as convincing in Brahms’s dark-hued requiem as they had been in Walshe’s polyglot one. The performance never lingered, with vividly assured contributions from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, belying their youthfulness, and superb, burnished solos from the bass-baritone Shenyang and a more tremulous contribution from the soprano Elena Tsallagova.

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Andrew Clements