Prom 35: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Søndergård with James Ehnes – Caroline Mathilde, Walton, The Swan of Tuonela, Sibelius 5

Peter Maxwell Davies
Caroline Mathilde – Suite from Act II
Violin Concerto in B minor
Lemminkaïnen Legends, Op.22 – III: The Swan of Tuonela
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Mary Bevan (soprano) & Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano) [Caroline Mathilde]

James Ehnes (violin)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thomas Søndergård

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 12 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thomas Søndergård. Photograph: © Andy BuchananAfter two collaborations with erstwhile chiefs, one distinctly wobbly, the other immensely assured, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has given two Proms under its current principal conductor, Thomas Søndergård. This was the second of them and it left a mixed impression.

Søndergård’s fresh, vernal take on standard Nordic repertoire has been winning friends but he is also associated with what Sir Henry Wood would have called “novelties” – his term for new music of all kinds. Not that the ballet Caroline Mathilde has much in common musically with Peter Maxwell Davies’s more radical provocations. Its scenario alone remains uncompromisingly dark. Fifteen-year-old Caroline, youngest sister of George III (himself previously the subject of Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King), is driven into marriage with the unstable mother-dominated Danish teen-monarch, Christian VII, only to find consolation in the arms of the influential court doctor. That liaison is, unsurprisingly, doomed. The score takes in some abrupt transformations and superimpositions but we are a long way from 1969 when Worldes Blis famously prompted dissent in this Hall. The rather ambitious second Suite extracted from Caroline Mathilde was given with the composer’s approval in abridged form. The performance seemed ideal with a subtle play of colours, a wide dynamic range and luxury casting in the wordless lamenting. The Suite ended, as does the ballet, with a quiet adagio for clarinets and alto flute as the heroine is sent into exile – this is (mostly) the cinematic, melodic Maxwell Davies and he was present to take the warm applause.

James Ehnes. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaWalton’s Violin Concerto, which some consider the finest of all his orchestral works, was once so closely identified with the brilliant Jascha Heifetz that it took a while for more relaxed options to gain traction. Interpretatively speaking, James Ehnes steered a middle course between the tensile Heifetz approach and the less insistent style of a Kyung-Wha Chung, offering Mediterranean warmth with an astringent edge. In certain respects he was closer to the former, the determined immobility of his playing stance and the impregnability of his intonation and technique being redolent of a bygone age. His Stradivarius produced glorious, sweetly focused tone even if the sound was not especially large. While the imperturbable ardour he brought to the music’s lyrical effusions was well supported, there were a few awkward corners in the accompaniment of more active, rhythmically tricky passages. Ehnes himself introduced his eloquent J. S. Bach encore, cool in every sense: the third-movement Andante from the Sonata in A minor, BWV1003.

After the interval Søndergård (who has been recording Sibelius with these forces for Linn Records) returned to the Symphony with which he celebrated his first concert in charge of BBCNOW, back in 2012. First though came the ubiquitous Swan, a swift-flowing rendition with textures gossamer light rather than heavily freighted with intimations of death. In the Symphony too, the conductor seemed determined to aerate the music, making the most of an ensemble that lacks something in outright physical power. Were the players getting tired though? This was not a reading to equal their account of Nielsen’s Fifth the previous night. Despite abundant fine detailing, the argument failed to engage as an inexorable process, not much helped by the gaps between movements and one of the noisiest audiences I have ever been sat amongst. Perhaps the most damaging of the fortissimo coughs was the one that wrecked the pianissimo at the end of the first movement of the Walton, but it can’t be easy to play to crowd members continuously connected to electronic devices, slurping drinks or trumpeting some chronic respiratory disease. For good or ill the big barn of the Royal Albert Hall and its ‘summer festival’ has become a tourist attraction. With luck, BBC Radio 3 listeners will have been spared some of the racket.

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