There surely couldn't have been an ensemble better suited to tonight's programme than the World Orchestra for Peace, founded by Sir Georg Solti to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In the aftermath of a World Cup, the band list reads like a fantasy orchestra, an astonishingly international melting pot of orchestral celebrities in which 80% of the players are principals or concertmasters of their respective home sections.

Donald Runnicles conducting the World Orchestra for Peace © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Donald Runnicles conducting the World Orchestra for Peace
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The evening began entirely a cappella though, with four of the weekend's nine choirs singing the world première of Ēriks Ešenvalds' A Shadow, an eight minute setting of Longfellow's poem of the same name. The chorus, like the orchestra, represented a great coming-together, amassed from the BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy, the North East Youth Choir and the choruses of the Universities of Aberdeen and Birmingham. The text, sung with astounding clarity of diction, addresses the anguished curiosity a parent feels for their children's future after their own death, and in translating this feeling into musical form, Ešenvalds has clearly been enormously successful with his new work.

After a shattering opening, the text largely floated down with an airy freedom from the singers, grouped together to the organ's right rather than split bilaterally as they later would be for Beethoven. It was good to see choirmaster Simon Halsey take the rostrum to conduct this piece, rather than watching from the touchline. He masterminded the wonderfully long diminuendo which carries the text across generations and into the future, but the triumph was Ešenvalds' idea of giving handheld bells to four groups of six players, dotted throughout the choir, and instructing them to echo the sopranos a beat or two behind them. Clearly this isn't an easy piece to pull off, but it's one I'd love to hear again.

Donald Runnicles took to the rostrum for the remainder of the night, beginning with Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem of 1939-40. Composed to a commission from Emperor Hirohito to mark the 2600th anniversary of the Mikado dynasty, the symphony was rejected by the Japanese government as an insult. In Runnicles' ultra-vivid reading, it was easy to see why it wouldn't do for someone looking for a superficially celebratory work. While every thrilling percussive detail of the scherzoid middle movement was realised, though, Runnicles' biggest success was in shaping the longer dramatic arc of the piece into a cogent whole. There was a movingly cyclical sense of the slammed timpani strokes of the first movement being echoed in the soft pizzicato tread of the third, and the hall was held to a long silence as the almost imperceptible double bass murmurs dissolved into darkness.

Erin Wall, Judit Kutasi, Russell Thomas, Franz-Josef Selig and the BBC Proms Youth Choir © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Erin Wall, Judit Kutasi, Russell Thomas, Franz-Josef Selig and the BBC Proms Youth Choir
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Runnicles' Beethoven was an uncomplicatedly lively affair. For a group who so rarely assemble, the ability of the string section to maintain crystalline textures even at the conductor's ambitious tempi was admirable. There was plenty to enjoy in the highlighting of often overlooked details; here or there a second woodwind part would ring out brightly, and the ferocity of the centrally-seated violas and cellos' playing in the storm D minor of the first movement brought Bruckner to mind. The brass were augmented with a bonus trumpet and two extra horns, giving further weight to the music. The solo fourth horn playing in the slow movement, weaving in and out of the clarinets, was a total joy. The only misfortune fell to a violist's broken string. 

After a slightly scrappy attacca, the finale played out with bustling energy, the first perorations of the big tune quick and relatively full in sound. Franz-Josef Selig's call to arms was among the most stirring I've heard, summoning the choir with a voice which seemed to fill the hall effortlessly. The large chorus responded with similar vigour, though Beethoven's unsympathetically stratospheric tenor writing was occasionally a little exposed. Tenor Russell Thomas sang the Turkish March with a pleasingly light, crisply exciting tone, while Judit Kutasi and Erin Wall sang with elegantly rounded sound. The last minutes exploded In a flurry of choral extravagance and roaring timpani, driving this very well conceived programme to a triumphant end.