Photo, Mark Allan

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

Imagine what Franz Kafka heard when he had earplugs in (a regular adornment) to reduce the noise of the outside world, which he hated, however everyday. Gerald Barry does the deed in the thirteen-minute Kafka’s Earplugs (BBC commission: world premiere) for we are in the head of the Prague-born German-speaking novelist (1883-1924) for shifting sounds – formless, disturbing, marching sinisterly, always muted with subtle changes of timbre, exclusive to Kafka’s brain, disorientating – that make for compelling listening. A great piece; vintage Barry.

Central to the concert, William Walton’s wonderful Violin Concerto, written for Heifetz. James Ehnes was as ever technically immaculate yet he didn’t convey much of the score’s heart and soul, its languor and longing, the cosmopolitan warmth, stunning virtuosity in the second movement, mind, yet the greater perspective of the music, its emotions and scenic properties, were more apparent from the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds. However, Ehnes’s encore – the Finale of Bach’s C-major Sonata, BWV1005 – sizzled magnetically.

Sibelius’s First Symphony was given a seasoned outing (Storgårds & the BBCP have recorded the cycle for Chandos) opening with a suggestive clarinet solo from John Bradbury, unveiling mysteries of the deep, to where the Symphony will sink at its close, Storgårds leading a flexible, powerful (terrific timpani) and passionate performance, vividly pictorial (each listener to his or her own as to what), fevered, landscape-descriptive, contemplative, unashamedly romantic, calling to mind in the Finale, unexpectedly, Khachaturian’s written-later Spartacus, specifically the section used for BBCTV”s The Onedin Line. Sibelius an influence, perhaps?