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 PROM 70: Mendelssohn, Maxwell Davies and Sibelius: Daniel Hope (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (conductor), Garry Walker (conductor) BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 8.9.2009 (CR)

This was a popular programme, with the Royal Albert Hall full to the rafters. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture opened the programme, aptly conducted by Maxwell Davies, who has, for most of his life, inhabited the Orkney islands and undoubtedly understands the imagery that Mendelssohn’s music conveys. His performance was ably controlled and poised, with the opening music given space to breathe in an un-hurrying tempo. The interpretation worked well, leaving space for the more turbulent mood later in the piece to evolve and create drama. The most striking aspect of this performance was the clarity of the sound, with shimmering violins well articulated and the orchestral sound perfectly balanced. Max is a gentle but deeply intense man; his gaze holds your attention and gives the impression that he can somehow read your mind. His deep-felt love for music comes through in the care shown in his performance, with each note carefully placed and not over-played. The well balanced sound allows the woodwind solos to come through unforced. The fury of the rising waves provided a sense of drama in the music, giving a sense of Mendelssohn’s respect for the power of the sea.

Maxwell Davies’s own music followed, in the form of his second violin concerto, Fiddler on the Shore, commissioned by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and appropriately receiving its UK premiere on the composer’s 75th birthday. The concerto opens with a bright, brassy sound, with rising pitches crowned by crotales. This sound is unmistakably Maxwell Davies and the introduction of Scotch Snap rhythms further enforces this. He uses a large orchestra for a concerto, with full woodwind and brass sections, but Maxwell Davies is a master of orchestral technique, eliciting a vast array of colour from the players. Particular highlights included rich string melodies in the tenor range, bright bursts of sound from the brass and rising and far-reaching melodies which on occasion are allowed to spiral upwards to the extremes of range. The soloist was never overpowered. The violin part incorporates folk music, with Scottish-infused melodies spinning around the orchestral material. The breathtaking slow movement was melancholic and deeply expressive, bringing to mind the image of the title’s fiddler on the shore of a remote island, and a plea for the survival of traditional music making on the islands. This was stunning, wholly absorbing and impassioned playing from Daniel Hope, who communicated the music impressively. The audience shared my enthusiasm for the work and allowed composer and soloist multiple curtain calls. A surprise rendition of Happy Birthday, with the capacity audience singing along to the sound of Daniel Hope and the Royal Philharmonic seemed to make Maxwell Davies’s day, his joy made clear to audience and orchestra alike. Max has become one of our best known living composers, and it was a wonderful experience to witness such respect and love for a man who is one of our most prolific and outspoken artists.

Sibelius’s music shares the nationalistic expression of Mendelssohn and Maxwell Davies, and his fifth symphony famously depicts the flight of sixteen swans in its final movement. This evening’s performance was conducted by Garry Walker, who judged the tempo perfectly, giving a sedate and triumphant opening which allowed for a well-paced development as the movement unfolded. The end of the first movement was dramatic and exhilarating, although the brass overpowered slightly from my position in the hall, directly opposite the orchestra (which had more to do with the acoustic of the hall than the playing itself, based on what I have experienced at other concerts). Sibelius’s music is a wonderful example of economy of means in composition, with a sense that the music organically flows and is every note is indelibly connected to the others. The second movement is effectively a set of variations, but becomes darker and more sombre in mood as it develops, with growing tension in the harmony and some magnificent crescendos from the horns. The sudden activity of the final movement has its own incumbent energy, gaining momentum to allow the music to take flight. The ‘Swan Hymn’ motif was superbly played by the horns, and later by the trumpets, with the splendor of Sibelius’s music providing spine-tingling moments as one could imagine the swans flying past, circling around and returning, as Sibelius finally resolves the tension in the music through a reverent hymn to nature. This was a fantastic performance, with the RPO in top form and Walker’s interpretation allowing the music to come alive.

Carla Rees


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