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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder