This was a Prom of two very different halves, Berg’s just-short-of-half-an-hour Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (over double the length of the Berg) staring across the interval at each other. Gil Shaham replaced an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili in the Berg, and the excellent partnership with Vnsk and the Minnesota Orchestra showed only the occasional rough edge born from uncertainty.
Shaham and the orchestra’s leader, Sarah Kwak, showed a strong understanding in the extended duetting sections they enjoyed, and Shaham was an authoritative figure throughout this is clearly a concerto he has known and loved for a long time, and he directed not only his orchestral colleagues but also the audience through its many vagaries and complexities. The applause was effusively warm, for what was a splendid performance.
Regarding the Beethoven, I want to lay my only major quibble out first: namely, the use of an amateur chorus for the final movement, which has become somewhat of a recurring theme at Proms performances of this symphony. Before I’m shouted down for bashing enthusiastic musicians, let me say that the BBC Symphony Chorus were very good, spot-on intonationally and strong rhythmically. However, I found the German text almost entirely unintelligible, as did several of my neighbours: diction is an aspect in which a professional choir has an undeniable advantage, and Schiller’s wonderful text suffered in the Royal Albert Hall.
That aside, the performance was top-notch. Vnsk and the Minnesota orchestra have recently completed an excellent complete set of the Beethoven symphonies, in which this evening’s soprano and bass soloists also featured. Theirs is a lean, lithe approach to Beethoven, while all the time colourful and rich think somewhere between Norrington and Jochum (a comparison not at all meant to be unfair to Vnsk and his team, who are in a league of their own). The slow third movement was simply beautiful, and the finale was as the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth always is: life-affirming, warming, energizing.