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

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.

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.

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.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump