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Proms 2014: the sound of silence in Walton’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

Performances by James Ehnes and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales had the Royal Albert Hall audience listening intently.

The composer William Walton, photographed in 1965. Photo: Erich Auerbach/Getty
The composer William Walton, photographed in 1965. Photo: Erich Auerbach/Getty

One of my favourite things about the Proms is the silence the season’s best performances can produce. Thousands of people cram into the Royal Albert Hall every night, and they shuffle, cough and whisper like any other kind of audience. But every so often, it all dies away, and thousands of people lean in together to listen, so quiet that you can hear the patter of the rain on the roof far above your head.

Such a moment occurred during Prom 35, as violinist James Ehnes returned to the stage after his superb rendition of Walton’s Violin Concerto to give an unscheduled encore. To a rapt crowd, he played the third movement of Bach’s second sonata for solo violin, carefully drawing out the spread chords to support the sonorous melody. The quieter he played, the harder the audience listened, and the more intense the silence surrounding his music became.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes, photographed by Benjamin Ealovega

Ten years after Walton’s Viola Concerto (which we will hear at the end of this year’s Proms season on 10 September) had brought him to prominence in English classical music, the composer’s Violin Concerto in 1939 marked the point at which his reputation as a young genius was being overtaken by Benjamin Britten. It’s a romantic, melodic piece, with passages that recall the kind of lines that Elgar (who died in 1934) used to write for the violin. In this performance, Ehnes managed to give depth to its romanticism while avoiding cloying sentimentality. He was aided in this by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who under Thomas Søndergård’s baton kept the piece moving along admirably.

Also featured in this programme was a suite of ballet music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies for his 1990 piece Caroline Mathilde. The work tells the story of George III’s younger sister, who married the Danish king but had a tragic affair with her husband’s court doctor (these events are also the basis for the 2012 film A Royal Affair). The music is suitably spiky and disconcerting, with some unusual percussion thrown in the amplify the eerie effect. The latter part of the suite features two intertwining lines for female voice, which emerge from the string melodies.

Conductor Thomas Søndergård in action. Photo: Andy Buchanan

The evening concluded with two works by Sibelius: a tone poem called Swan of Tuonela inspired by the Finnish epic the Kalevala, and the composer’s Fifth Symphony. The former is a short piece, and its dark atmosphere is heavily reliant on the cor anglais solo (played superbly by Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer) for contrast. The symphony, with its mournful woodwind solos and string tremolos, is wound tight with tension. Søndergård’s players built gradually to the final movement’s crescendo, and when it released into the abrupt chords that close the symphony, everyone in the hall was holding their breath again.