"You may be wondering..." began Guest Conductor Andrew Litton in his brief address to the audience as he entered the stage, together with violinist James Ehnes, and wonder we did as the programme didn't promise his appearance until the second piece. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, however, had called earlier, begging Ehnes to stand in for their indisposed soloist in Brahms' Violin Concerto which was to be broadcast live – a fact that he indeed appeared to find out about only in Litton's announcement.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Despite all, Ehnes gave a slender, poignant rendition of Walton's Violin Concerto, which had been composed for one of the most profoundly influential violinists, Jascha Heifetz. His great virtuosity and purity of lines is mirrored in the concerto's solo parts. After the initial bars, in which the orchestra slightly covered his notes, Ehnes gradually regained solistic dominance and his rapid, yet very clean, double-stops and jumps morphed seamlessly into sweet, lyrical lines, whose clear and round sound in the lower and middle register was topped with filigree high notes.

All the musicians appeared a little restrained at first, but the middle movement, expressive of Walton's love of all things Italian, encouraged them to let their hair down. Where the conductor's movements before had been small, flowing and soft until the double-stopped Canzonetta with its colourful, impressionistic accompaniment, the solo, now driven particularly by the lower strings, swept him away in voluminous, spirited gestures, dancing on his podium. Throughout the piece, Ehnes seemed slightly distanced and introverted, but his phrasing was concise, his tone strong and lean, with a pretty vibrato yet without sentimentality.

Despite the odd occasion in which the orchestra was too prominent and covered several seconds of solo, the first two beats of Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge showed that it had been holding its horses. Immediately the sound opened up, had more colour as a protagonist as opposed to its previous accompanying and supporting role. It was particularly strong in the middle section, where it moved from the Romance, soft and almost kitschy in its emotionality, and the brilliant operatic parody in the following Aria Italiana with strummed strings that brought many quiet smiles to listeners' faces, to the Waltz that, like his Scottish Ballad, exaggerates the conventional aspects of the composition to make it more Viennese than Vienna itself. Despite a broad and dense orchestral sound, the various pizzicato cues were rather uncoordinated, which was particularly unlucky in the very first beat of the Variations and the Chant, where the expected, resolute pluck turned into a scattering of ka-plunks. In the final variation, however, everything was back on track; the rhythmic drive of the Fugue lead into a gentle flageolet like the cold shine of the stars in the void of space that finally settled back on earth for a warmer close.

Andrew Litton © Danny Turner
Andrew Litton
© Danny Turner

Also warm but very quietly, almost subdued, Litton took the opening of Elgar's Enigma Variations, with weighty, very present low strings, particularly cellos. This on the one hand added a certain tension to the mystery of the melody, but on the other hand sacrificed some of the dramatic effect of the wallowing crescendo of this well-known theme. The 13 character-pieces that follow, free variations on the theme, are depictions of the Elgars' friends, some of whose names are "sung" by the variations. The ninth of these, “Nimrod”, may well be the best known of them, yet that afternoon the lesser known variations stood out, such as the happy waltz theme of the sixth (“Ysobel”), interspersed with dramatic, warmly flowing low strings, and the brass passage in the seventh ("Troyte"), joyfully boisterous and played with much gusto by an invigorated orchestra.

Those who might have raised an eyebrow in the face of missing coordination and balance of the registers were mollified by the following variation, the famous “Nimrod”. Litton's baton hovered gently right in front of him as if under a Hogwarts levitation charm, the stronger passages he shapes with large, round movements, the quieter cues came at the twitch of the finger, such was the intensity of this connection with the audience at that moment. In the last few variations, rhythm and articulation might have been clearer, but fabulous brass with bright, clear tone, surging emotion and a full, dense sound made for a pompous, colourful close of this matinee, in which American conductor Andrew Litton proved that English music isn't for the English only.