Tonight’s Orchestre de Paris Prom was very much a concert of two halves, in the first of which they got to show their sensitive, introspective side, reflecting on the nature of life and lamenting too-early death, then becoming considerably more extrovert in the second for some free-spirited buccaneering, and what the programme notes describe as “vivid, prolonged and grand noise”. It was, in fact, rather like attending two short concerts back-to-back – and both equally good, in their different ways.

Janine Jansen performs at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Janine Jansen performs at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The first half consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and a work by Britten himself, the Violin Concerto – a perfect pairing. Aside from the obvious link between the works, there is a parallel of personal loss: at the time of Britten’s death, Arvo Pärt had just discovered his music and felt a strong connection to it, but never had the chance to meet the composer in person; Britten, 40 years earlier, had been deeply drawn to the music of Berg (especially the violin concerto) but was prevented from studying with him by that composer’s sudden death. The pieces also both make use of historical musical forms given a contemporary spin – canon and passacaglia, respectively.

The strings of the orchestra, under the baton of Paavo Järvi, brought a quiet stillness to the Cantus, with a slowly building intensity throughout, as the single Aeolian melodic motif diverged throughout the string lines and spiralled downwards with a gravitational inevitability to the final A minor chord. They gave it a somewhat warmer, lusher timbre than that with which this spare, pure piece is often performed, but this worked well to bring out the emotion behind the music – a heartfelt lament, rather than a cool meditation. In the final toll of the bell (left ringing after all other instruments are silenced), precisely as the composer intended, the fourth overtone (a C sharp) was clearly audible, leaving the subtlest ghost of a major chord hanging in the air.

Violinist Janine Jansen has said that her love for Britten’s concerto “has gotten stronger and stronger” in the years since she first played it, and has been working to bring it to as many new audiences as possible. I hope this scintillating performance will have won the piece (and Ms Jansen, of course!) a fair few additional fans. To the first movement she brought a dreamy sweetness with unsettling undercurrents, to the middle scherzo an satirical wit and sinister dancing mood, and in the final passacaglia and andante a growing sense of unresolved soul-searching – particularly in the soloist’s final major/minor indecision. Britten’s orchestration is exquisite, and many instruments are given elegant little solos or ensemble sections, but Järvi never allowed them to overstep and obscure the solo violin, even when Jansen was playing the most delicate of stratospheric harmonics, and the smooth, soft-edged texture of the Paris string section contrasted interestingly with the solo violin’s bite.

Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 is a massive work in terms of sound produced (and melodic imagination), although at around 35 minutes, not actually that long. This is presumably why Berlioz’s overture Le corsaire – composed while on holiday, and pleasant enough, but insubstantial compared to the rest of the programme – was included. Likewise, I quite understand both audience and orchestra’s desire for (multiple) encores, but I think I would have preferred to leave on a high from the wonderful all-guns-blazing end of the symphony, rather than have it bookended with more cheerful froth (the encore was the Galop from Bizet’ Petite Suite, orchestrations from his piano piece Jeux d’enfants).

For all its popularity, the Saint-Saëns is actually quite a difficult work to bring off convincingly, particularly in roomier auditoria; both the peppering of fast semiquaver-shifted staccato chords in the first part of the first movement, and the balancing of instruments and sections later on, can be issues. I was impressed by the watertight rhythmic accuracy of both wind and string sections independently, but – perhaps due to a quirk of the Albert Hall’s idiosyncratic acoustics – sometimes found the string sound arriving a fraction of a beat late. Regarding balance, it’s a matter of personal taste, but I found the overall sound a little top-heavy; given a mixing desk, I would have liked to turn the double basses, and particularly the lovely bassoon section, up a notch or two. However, I had barely formulated the desire for more low frequencies, when it was time for the fabulous floor-shaking organ to join in (not an exaggeration – I quietly slipped off my shoes to feel the vibrations through my toes), piloted with panache by Thierry Escaich. All of the moments of the piece which usually induce goosebumps (like the tinkling piano in the second part of the second movement) did so, and the glorious gale-force finale threatened literally, as well as figuratively, to bring the house down.