BBC Proms 2014: Sibelius, Walton and Maxwell Davies
Thomas Søndergård conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
At one point in the second half of Prom 35, my eye was caught by something bright pink moving around in the stalls. It was a little girl in a fuschia jumper swaying in time with Sibelius's Fifth Symphony while conducting her own invisible orchestra.
This was a Prom of infectious rhythm, which came to a climax with Sibelius's monumental Symphony but started with a piece explicitly written for dance: Peter Maxwell Davies's Caroline Mathilde Suite, from the second act of the ballet of the same name. Davies wrote the ballet in 1990 for the Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt and it tells the story of Caroline Matilda, sister of King George III of England, who was sent to Copenhagen to be married to her cousin, King Christian VII only to have her heart stolen by the king's physician.
Davies's music makes use of the elegant dance rhythms of the time as a base on which to build, to mock and to undermine the façade of the court. The suite took an eerie turn with a section called 'The Execution' which, according to the programme notes, scores 'a nightmare vision [in which] the king dances around the castle garden, decapitating statues.' Davies lavishes unusual percussion on this section, including a flexatone and a thunder sheet – as well as two ethereal lines for female voice, here sung by soprano Mary Bevan and mezzo Kitty Whately.
The whole was an unnerving but captivating suite, authoritatively conducted by Thomas Søndergård, that whetted the appetite for the full-length ballet.
Next the BBC National Orchestra of Wales turned its attention to Walton's Violin Concerto, played by the always-astonishing James Ehnes. This was a glorious performance that revelled in the Concerto's lyricism without becoming cloying. But the encore was simply spell-binding: Ehnes played the third movement from Bach's Second Sonata for solo violin as the whole Royal Albert Hall leaned in to listen.
The second half was given over to Sibelius – first the dark and atmospheric Swan of Tuonela, a tone-poem inspired by a tale from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. The work served as a good appetiser for Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, one of his most magnificent works, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave a brilliant performance.
Søndergård guided the orchestra through the stormy waters of the first and second movements before letting the orchestra fly for the ecstatic 'swan hymn' in the final movement.
'Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans,' the composer wrote in his diary in 1915. 'One of my greatest experiences... Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to the trumpet.'
The resulting melody is surely one of the most gloriously life-affirming ever written and Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales more than did it justice. As the composer himself said of the 16 swans he saw that day, 'Lord God, what beauty!'