It would be surprising if composers had not yet seized on the opportunities offered by Lewis Carroll’s conceit of the looking glass. When Alice transitions from a world of fixed principles and realities to one in which the known knowns are reversed, she can only proceed by being prepared for the unexpected. That, at least, is the underlying assumption in Entr’acte, a short piece for string orchestra written by the American composer Caroline Shaw in 2011. It takes as its inspiration a sudden and powerful “soulful shift” to D flat major between the Minuet and Trio of a Haydn String Quartet.

Ryan Bancroft
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In this performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Ryan Bancroft, I had expected to be rather more challenged as a listener. It starts quite conventionally, light on its feet, balletic even, with carefully graduated dynamics, conjuring up all the old world elegance of an 18th-century ballroom. There is no linear structure though, merely a sense that the carriage is moving along, the repeated patterns suggesting the onward momentum of a journey. It is only in the more unusual effects that the listener realises they are already in unfamiliar territory: extensive use of pizzicato (also given to a solo cello right at the end), snapped lower strings, diversions into ethereality for violins, approximating the sounds of a glass harmonica, and the kind of thrust found in Britten’s Simple Symphony. In the careful management of this score by Bancroft and his players, the drama was left rather wanting, the important “shift” difficult to discern. Musing again on the title, I was left wondering at the close what the first act of the opera had been like and indeed what we might expect in the following act.

Clara-Jumi Kang and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was a case of Mendelssohn to the rescue. Or was it? In formal terms his last concerto is quite unconventional, with the cadenza placed before the recapitulation, a trick later copied by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. The piece is played without a break and, on this occasion, the bassoon solo that leads into the Finale was louder than usual, the sound aching, even admonitory.

And what of the soloist? Clara-Jumi Kang was making her Proms debut and adopted a very flexible pulse with moments of striking colour: an earthiness below the stave and a silvery Ariel-like manifestation above it. There was also a heartfelt dialogue between her and the vibrant woodwind and strings in the central Andante. What detracted from her playing, however, were a series of wobbles in intonation and a recurring unsteadiness and unevenness in phrasing. The journey in this particular carriage was often quite bouncy. If there’s one feature of this concerto that catches many fiddlers out, it’s the need for complete seamlessness.

Miah Persson, Ryan Bancroft and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

No such quibbles about Bancroft’s reading of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. His flowing elegant hands constantly in motion yielded a performance of impressive organic coherence. Again and again individual details made their mark: bucolic horns, the bell-like precision of four flutes, the characterful clarinets with bells held high, the glockenspiel redolent of a childhood nursery, repeated counterpoint from the trumpets accompanied by astonishing pre-echoes of the composer’s Fifth Symphony. In Mahler’s original programmatic conception, the slow movement was called “The world without gravity”. Here, Bancroft achieved a rare degree of serenity, an almost dream-like state with a floating sense of consciousness. We were still beyond the looking glass. Then, in the Finale with its intimations of heaven, beyond even mortal existence. And waiting to open the pearly gates was the warm and welcoming voice of Miah Persson.