Philharmonia Royal Festival Hall Paavo Jarvi James Ehnes 26 November 2023
However many times you’ve heard it and however familiar it is, there are few more atmospheric pieces than Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In this performance Jarvi really ensured that it resonated with every detail of Debussy’s sunny, evocative score lovingly lingered over – especially the harp chords and then the tiny, tinkling bells in the final bars. And I really liked the way he allowed the sound to die away, arms raised at the end and – for once – the audience respected that and really listened.
James Ehnes is an admirably unshowy performer but, my goodness, he finds plenty of passion and bravura in the music. Dressed in “lounge suit” with tie (the orchestra was in full evening dress at 3pm) he looked more like a very business-like cabinet minister than a soloist. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto can seem like a populist pot boiler but Ehnes made it sound daisy-fresh most notably in his immaculate first movement cadenza and the delightful duet with the orchestra which ends it. His muted Canzonetta was moving and I enjoyed the excellent balance with the wind solos: flute, clarinet and bassoon. The segue into the finale was elegant and his staccato, vivacissimo, heel-of-the-bow rhythms were a masterclass in violin technique.
His encore was new to me, and I suspect to most of the audience. Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonata number 3 in D minor is a one movement piece. It’s plaintive with lots of double stopping and glissandi along with some wonderfully virtuosic cross string work. It was a well chosen contrast and the tumultuous applause Ehnes received was richly deserved.
And so to Prokofiev’s sixth symphony which dates from 1947, only six years before the composer’s death. It was, almost inevitably, banned in Soviet Russia: it was too austere and truthful for the Stalinist regime. At this concert it required a fair bit of interval stage management to accommodate an additional desk in each of the four string sections, five percussionists and full brass as well as piano. The symphony is structured as a triptych with a poignant, almost filmic largo at its heart. Jarvi, always a very measured conductor who really holds general pauses for dramatic effect, brought out all the necessary sonority in, for example the violin solo in the first movement and the sensitively played brass solos in the second. And the insouciant (subversive?) trombone work against the strings in the third vivace movement was delightful.