You know you have just heard something special when from the side of the stage the soloist can be spotted wrestling with the conductor!
Violinist Gil Shaham, who had just played Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14, was about to take his fourth bow. Not quite believing that the huge (even by Proms standards) applause was meant entirely for him, he was desperately begging conductor David Robertson to come out with him.
But Robertson knew the truth of it and stuck to his guns. As the pulling and pushing continued I began to fear for the Stradivarius clutched tight in one hand, but the episode spoke volumes about what had just come to pass.
Shaham played with a rare blend of serenity and vigour, the quietest notes ‘whispered’ with an almost other-worldly quality, the bolder passages attacked with striking tone and precision. Frequently turning his back on the conductor during the most ferocious passages, he played like a man possessed as he explored the inner intensity of the music. This performance was no one man ego trip however, and Shaham could also be seen gazing at the orchestra in awe and delight when his instrument was silent. His first movement cadenza was especially well done, his andante playing particularly luscious, while the final movement constituted one exhilarating adrenalin rush for player and listeners alike.
Although Shaham deserved every ounce of applause he received (for once I didn’t mind the abundant clapping between movements), he was right in believing that it was not only his playing that made the performance. The BBC Symphony Orchestra produced a beautifully romantic sound and succeeded in working the concerto’s disparate movements (the third contrasts markedly with the others) together to make them feel like one coherent whole. On the other hand, it is not often I can say that I wouldn’t have felt short changed had I heard the soloist play only his encore (a gavotte in the rondo style by Bach).
The Barber was sandwiched between two starkly contrasting pieces. The concert’s opener was a new piece, Hammered Out, by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Influenced by (amongst other things) James Brown and 1970s’ jazz funk, it is as much as anything an exploration into just how powerful a symphony orchestra can be. With its clattering, clashing opening, its swinging beat, its deep brass and strident strings, this multi-textured piece proved most enjoyable and must surely rank among the best of this year’s Proms’ premieres.
After the interval David Robertson led the BBCSO in a beautifully judged performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43. With smooth, lyrical playing that was brilliantly controlled, exquisitely balanced and wonderfully paced, in almost any other concert this would have been the highlight.
But, on this occasion, there was absolutely no shame in it playing second fiddle to the performance of Barbers Violin Concerto.