Southern sunshine and Nordic twilight: John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 26 – Barry, Walton, Sibelius: James Ehnes (violin), BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds (conductor).  Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.7.2023. (CS)

James Ehnes © BBC/Mark Allan

Gerald BarryKafka’s Earplugs (BBC commission, world premiere)
William Walton – Violin Concerto
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39

In early 1916, plagued by worries about his health and his artistic inertia, Franz Kafka wrote to his former fiancé Felice Bauer explaining his plan to leave Prague and move to Berlin.  In order to overcome his physical and mental exhaustion he intended to undertake a regime of extreme solitude: ‘My first task will be to crawl into a hole somewhere and listen to me.’ (Meine Aufgabe wird zunächst sein, mich irgendwo in ein Loch zu verkriechen und michabzuhören.)  Nine months earlier, Kafka had begun wearing wax and cotton earplugs when he was writing, to block out the noise of the external world – including new technologies such as the phonograph and telephone which, emitting an omnipresent static noise, he found terrifyingly devoid of meaning.  But, the earplug also turned the ear in on itself, producing subjective sounds, and thus was a tool for acoustic self-observation.  The acoustic isolation that he proposed would, Kafka believed, bring his inner life, mental and physical – the literal sounds of his body – to the fore, and remedy his corporeal and creative complaints.

In Kafka’s Earplugs, a 12-minute orchestral work commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and given its world premiere at this Prom by the BBC Philharmonic under their Chief Conductor, John Storgårds, Gerald Barry proposes to take the listener ‘inside’ Kafka’s head, to capture the writer’s auditory perception of the world and his self: “In the music you are Kafka, hearing the world’s sounds as he heard them.  You are inside his head.”

The work is scored for large orchestra but the registral and coloristic range is restrained: low woodwind (alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), trombones and tuba cast a shadow over the timbre, and Barry’s writing constricts the strings to their lower register – I think the fiddles barely emerge from G-string gloom to find their way up to the E string.  The dynamic was a consistent pianissimo, and the rhythm similarly uniform: an onwards metrical trudge which sometimes assumed an aggressive tint.  The strings churned out gritty double-stopped clusters, the woodwind slithered through scales, horns and brass chuntered in circling patterns.  Yes, there were microscopic flashes of differentiated tints: some dry brightness from the piano, a percussive clatter, or an individual woodwind voice coming briefly to the fore.  And, occasionally, some syncopation tugged against the metronomic tread, creating a shiftiness.  The work ended as arbitrarily as it began.

The protagonist of Der Bau, Kafka’s penultimate book, is a mole-like creature who, determined to live in silence in his underground home, becomes obsessed with a quiet, repetitive, but unlocatable and disruptive whistling sound that, despite its ambiguous source, he is convinced comes from an antagonistic intruder.  The only reason I can think of why one might want to listen to – or indeed play – Kafka’s Earplugs is if one is eager to join Kafka’s creature in his hallucinatory paranoia.

After Barry’s dungeon-like darkness, the sun came out in the form of William Walton’s Violin Concerto, which was written in 1938 when the composer was living with Viscountess Wimbourne — ‘beautiful, intelligent Alice’ — in the idyllic Villa Cimbrone which she had rented in Ravello, overlooking the Mediterranean.  And, if Barry often seems determined to agitate, unnerve or ridicule (take your pick), then Walton’s shimmering Romantic lyricism, surely reveals the composer’s eagerness to make the listener smile: the melodies sing soulfully, the orchestration is colourful, the soloist can show off their virtuosic tricks-of-the-trade.  Indeed, the concerto was specifically designed to showcase Jascha Heifetz’s dazzling virtuosity.  It was commissioned by Heifetz in 1936 and premiered by him in 1939 in Cleveland under Artur Rodzinski; he then recorded it twice, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goosens in 1949, and in 1950 with the Philharmonia with Walton himself conducting.

James Ehnes with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds © BBC/Mark Allan

There’s no doubting James Ehnes’s technical brilliance and his performance was characteristically meticulous and assured.  That wonderful opening solo sang with a shining sweetness tinted with a delicate perfume of poignancy, accompanied by countermelodies from the cellos and clarinet that whispered just as ‘sognando’ (dreamily).  In the first movement’s arching explorations, the passages of virtuosic display and the cadenza, the violinist’s intensity of tone never wavered.

The almost crazy challenges of the Presto capriccioso alla napolitana – harmonics and pizzicatos tumbling over one another in rapid succession, for example, alongside irregular accents and multifarious bowing styles – were adroitly despatched.  Urged on by Heifetz to introduce ever greater technical difficulty, Walton wrote to his publisher that ‘It’s quite gaga, I must say, and of doubtful propriety after the first movement’.  And, so, the spiky tarantella gave way to the lazy waltz of the trio, Ehnes’s double-stops and portamentos slithering with a louche half-smile.  Lower strings and bassoon gruffly got the Vivace’s march underway, only to be halted in their steps by Ehnes’s beautifully floating melodising, dispelling the tension, if only for a brief while.  In this movement, John Storgårds and Ehnes skilfully assimilated the competing strands of material, the momentum never tiring even though the music had plenty of room to breathe.

Despite his undoubted artistry, I didn’t feel that Ehnes quite captured the rapturous Romantic ardour of the Concerto, though – its balmy southern sensuousness.  Storgårds did garner some unabashed sultriness from the musicians of the BBC Philharmonic, as well as interjections – especially in the Presto, where the woodwind were piquant and the strings ebullient – that were bursting with zest and vigour.  At times the brilliance of the orchestral writing, and the clarity of its projection here, reminded one that Walton was also a composer of film music, so picturesque and immediate was the orchestral fabric.  Ehnes’s encore confirmed the detail and control of his playing, though: the unremitting semi-quavers of the Allegro assai which ends Bach’s C major Sonata BWV1005 flew by with hell-for-leather slickness – silky, nuanced, and seeming to gather momentum like a rolling stone.  Easy-peasy.

In the second half of the Prom, the southern sun gave way to northern lights.  Sibelius’s First Symphony begins with a cool, lonely clarinet (beautifully played here by John Bradbury) over a threatening timpani roll, immediately evoking a twilight vista of ancient Nordic forests. Storgårds recorded a Sibelius symphony cycle with the BBC Philharmonic in 2014, on the Chandos label, and when recordings of the First Symphony were reviewed as part of Radio 3’s Northern Lights Season the following year, it was the top recommendation.  At the Royal Albert Hall, one could hear why.  This was an impassioned, rugged reading, mesmerisingly taking us through the organic unfolding of the musical narrative, relishing all its moody restlessness.

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic © BBC/Mark Allan

After the rather broad beat of the introduction, the Allegro energico was driving and tense, the tempi, extended accelerandos and dynamics controlled and persuasive.  Though brassy climaxes roared fiercely, and the timpani truly thundered at the recapitulation, there were moments of tenderness and lyricism too, lucid textures allowing solo voices to sing and clear the air, as when the two bassoons snuck through the quiet woodwind chords and string pizzicato fragments.  The movement had both breadth and momentum, as it should: those bass pedal points throbbed.

Sibelius adds ‘ma non troppo’ to the Andante marking of the second movement.  Initially, Storgårds didn’t take the composer at his word, but he did pick things up with the winding woodwind entries, and the effect of the swings and turns was to make the movement’s starkly contrasting moods all the more driving and dramatic.  The Scherzo was taut and dry, the pizzicatos and staccatos prickly, the timpani hammerings heated.  This music felt edgy, angry, defiant.  One was minded that when Sibelius was putting the finishing touches to his symphony in the spring of 1899, the Emperor of Russia issued the ‘February Manifesto’ which restricted the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland, a decree to which Sibelius responded with several musical protests, including the The Song of the Athenians which was performed for the first time on 26th April 1899, in the same concert as the First Symphony.  The Lento episodes were delicate, but their transparency and frailty only served to deepen the movement’s repressed tensions.

The Finale (Quasi una Fantasia) returned to the questions of the previous movements, and answered them triumphantly, the opening clarinet theme sung now by ardent, soaring strings – a hymn of praise to Sibelius’s, and Storgårds, native land.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio Three and is available on BBC Sounds for 66 days.

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