BBC Proms reviews

Prom 62: Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/C Davis @ Royal Albert Hall, London

1 September 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

There was a pleasing symmetry to Prom 62. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major and Sibelius’ Symphony No.2 in D major are two immense orchestral works that last, on paper at least, exactly forty-five minutes each. Of course in practice it was a rather different matter because of liberties with tempi and, not least, because of the ecstatic response that Sir Colin Davis and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester stirred from their audience after each piece.

In the early nineteenth century, Beethoven’s only violin concerto, written at terrific speed in 1806, was considered extravagantly long, and so challenging that it was rarely played in the fifty years after its composition. Danish-born violinist Nikolaj Znaider made it look effortless. From his creeping entrance, he delivered a performance that was confident and spacious, isolating the filigree fingering, without disrupting the finely balanced tension of the piece. Beethoven never wrote his own cadenza and Znaider opted for Friz Kreisler’s (who once owned his 1741 Guarnerius) version, which he delivered with verve and sensitivity.

Sibelius wrote his Second Symphony almost exactly one hundred years later. It is arguably the most popular of his seven symphonic works, and imbued with a rich sense of Finnish pride, which is most palpable in the poignant final movement. Davis is known for having championed Sibelius’ work throughout his career, perhaps most notably with his set of symphonic recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra throughout the 1970s, and here he inspired an interpretation that was warm and vital, but clean and emotionally taut. It was a magnificent tour de force.

Quite apart from the stunning quality of performance, it was the was the union between the burgeoning talent of this European and cosmopolitan youth orchestra and the lofty experience of their conductor that made Prom 62 especially memorable. Foot-stamping, bow-wagging and shouts of bravo returned Davis repeatedly to the podium, proof, if it were needed, that he is thoroughly deserving of the epithet ‘national treasure’.

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