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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser