PROM 35: Finnish Classics Meet Mediterranean Walton

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom35: Maxwell Davies, Walton, Sibelius: James Ehnes (violin), Mary Bevan (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2014 (RB)

Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesCaroline Mathilde – suite from Act 2 of the ballet
Walton – Violin Concerto
SibeliusThe Swan of Tuonela
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major


The conductor Thomas Søndergård has a rising reputation. This 45 year-old Dane is on the same upward gradient as Andris Nelsons and Vassily Petrenko. Not that he has yet achieved Petrenko’s exposure, which in Merseyside included huge bill-board pictures – at a visual level, the David Beckham of classical music. Talent scouts for the great ‘international’ orchestras take note of Søndergård. He has already drawn very favourable reviews from Paul Corfield Godfrey for his Cardiff concerts at Hoddinott Hall and St David’s Hall – he has been Principal Conductor of BBC National Orchestra of Wales since 2012. He is also Principal Guest with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His name first appeared for me as conductor on violinist Vilde Frang’s superb debut album and William Hedley had praise for him there. Other colleagues have been similarly impressed.

Peter Maxwell Davies is not a name I associate with ballet. I should have known better. Are there any genres he has not addressed? His large-scale 1978 ballet Salome was recorded at the time by Danish EMI and issued in an extravagant three-LP set which reappeared in 2004, this time on CD, in the EMI ‘British Composers’ series (5861842). That first ballet was to a commission by Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt and enjoyed a long run in Copenhagen reappearing at the Santa Fe festival. Flindt also commissioned Caroline Mathilde, another full-length ballet, in 1990. You can read fuller background here. Caroline Mathilde was the sister of King George III whose insanity formed the stepping-off point for Davies’s early Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969). The ballet shows the 15 year-old heroine going to Copenhagen in an arranged marriage to the mentally unstable King Christian VII. The ballet traces the story’s tragic progress, including Caroline Mathilde’s affair with the King’s physician.

The suite drawn from the second and last act is in six movements, some played attacca. The music came across as full of colour and with symphonic grasp. It’s very much in the tradition of Prokofiev’s psychologically three-dimensional ballets. The style even touches directly on Prokofiev at times but otherwise moves between two poles. The first is a sort of steam-punk, ruthless machine activity with echoes of Michael Nyman’s grunting, growling, rowdy and vehement patterned sonorities for Peter Greenaway. The second is an outright lyrical swallow-dive into the most gorgeous romance with even a touch of nobilmente. This sound has familiarity from the sumptuous violin writing in Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. As it turns out, the Arnold was played by the BBCNOW with all twelve cylinders firing last October in Cardiff under the talented young Alexander Bloch. The music often possesses a tangy moody undertow that drifts in and out of angst and fury. At times you sense the celestial clockwork missing a cog or dropping a gear wheel to add drama. I found this a fascinating piece full of emotion and of ear-stimulating episodes. The two vocalising sopranos (a female choir can also be used) are deployed as part of the orchestra and were seated at the rear right-hand of the stage behind the violas. At the end Søndergard called the composer forward who almost skipped onto the podium, belying his eighty years with characteristically elfin energy.

Next came the Walton Violin Concerto. It took a while for me to tune my ears and head into Canadian James Ehnes’ slender, silvery line. Broadly speaking his sound is more Mullova or Chung than ripe, fruity Haendel or Oistrakh. I say this despite not having heard Oistrakh in the Walton – did he play it; does a recording exist? Once attuned to this light supple effect, the incisive playing and rhythmic intimacy registered with utmost pleasure. The central presto was more than usually fey, fly-away, cheeky and Mendelssohnian. In the finale the equipoise between luxuriously emphatic romance and rhythmic focus was again razor-sharp. The applause was extended and Ehnes eventually ‘capitulated’ with a soothing èlite encore: the third movement of J.S. Bach’s  Sonata No. 2,. Ehnes has recorded the Walton.

It was all Sibelius after the interval. The Swan of Tuonela, while treated to the audience’s adroitly timed bronchial gymnastics, was smooth, pulse-calming and of steely concentration. It comes across like the middle movement of a cor anglais concerto but there are also lovely sensitive brief solos from the first violin and first cello. The orchestra was on best form, allowing for what I thought was a horn fluff at one point. The Sibelius Fifth Symphonyended the evening. The playing continued to be incisive – no slur or blur. There were well calculated sea-swell and rocking effects and playing of salty calculation from the first and second trumpets. Søndergård’s precision was again on show at the start of the second movement with its country church harmonium evocations and the lightest brush-strokes. All this was matched with opulent string sound even when whisper-quiet or during the pizzicato pages. The finale was alive with buzz-saw tension. Søndergård’s eye-catching expansive arm gestures are neither self-conscious nor OTT; there’s no Bernstein-like extravagance or jumps. This is a conductor who is in his element and confident in his orchestra. Pleasing details were numerous, including the memorable wooden bow clatter of the BBCNOW double basses in the ferociously attacked figuration underneath the great horn theme. The symphony finished majestically with those hammered and stuttered chords.

Good news: Søndergård has recorded Sibelius 2 and 7 with the BBCNOW for Linn. You can see him talking about Sibelius on YouTube.

If you can find it you can hear Søndergård and the BBCNOW in the Fifth symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen on a BBC cover-mount disc. It came with Vol. 21, No. 11 of BBC Music Magazine. I intend to track down a copy.

Rob Barnett

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