BBC Proms reviews

Prom 70: Royal Philharmonic / Maxwell Davies / Walker @ Royal Albert Hall, London

8 September 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

For his 75th birthday celebration Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at his disposal, and to complement the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, he was sandwiched between two unlikely, but inspirational works.

Conducting the well known scotch-mist music, Maxwell Davies revelled in the mystery of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, keeping his interpretation low-key and smouldering while paying special attention to rhythmical jolts. The piece stealthily intensified and grew more muscular, ending with a perfectly hushed and contradictory wink in the wry, subdued strings.

Maxwell Davies’ Violin Concerto No. 2 began with a peasant’s feast of rhythmic slops and gristle, almost immediately interrupted by a polite and all too concerto-conscious passage from Daniel Hope’s ragged violin. Flicks between venomous biting and quelled lyricism are the characteristic trait of the concerto as a whole, orchestrated in fascinating ways, with glockenspiel providing sinister, penetrating twinges glowering between the insisting folk elements of the violin writing.

The surprises in this concerto don’t just consist of contrasts of “folksy” versus “crunchy”, but there were also serene passages of hymnal soaring music, which was swallowed up by exotic and original glances from the marimba and tambourine sounding like something from a very unearthly terrain. From that point on the switches from folk fiddling to jagged frothing became more subtle until the orchestra was given its country bumpkin moments, with a finale delicate and deliberate enough to remind the audience of the close of Fingal’s Cave.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony began with audience participation – a mobile phone chirruped in (fairly pleasing) counterpoint to the restrained but physical string sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Fifth is string heavy, and looked ill balanced with Maxwell-Davis’ percussion section gone, exposing the brass on a ledge above the double basses. The first movement ends suddenly, like an arm with a wrist for a hand, which worked brilliantly when presented as a surprise by conductor Garry Walker, and not as an inevitability.

The second movement was clean and responsive, presenting Sibelius’ occasional dissonances as matters of fact, neither pointing them out nor shrivelling them. There was another tie-in with Maxwell Davies’ piece in the spreading, seeping, spiritual tilt of the strings, but this was sadly overpowered by the brass, without due gravity or momentum.

The promise of darkening and souring of the second movement wasn’t kept in the third, though there were some fleeting, arresting moments. Sibelius seems to have truncated his thought somewhat and resolved the symphony too soon for its own good, and no amount of moulding or honing from Walker could hide that.

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Prom 70: Royal Philharmonic / Maxwell Davies / Walker @ Royal Albert Hall, London