Other than three minutes worth of Elgar’s “Nimrod”, Prom 10 was not a concert of showstoppers. Instead, much of the evening was about creating a sense of intimacy – no easy task given the enormity of the Royal Albert Hall. But the dedication of the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, meant they touched their audience personally, even in a concert hall that can sit 5,000 people.

Tasmin Little © Paul Mitchell
Tasmin Little
© Paul Mitchell

This was largely due to how Mena was unconcerned with trying to fill the hall’s vast space. Particularly during Moeran’s Violin Concerto, he was happy to let the sound make its own way though the hall. This performance of Moeran’s Concerto was something of a revelation. Rarely performed and recorded, it ­benefited from this considered and sympathetic performance by the BBC Philharmonic and violinist Tasmin Little. They never forced the music into places that it did not want to go, but treated it lovingly and carefully. Little was unafraid of taking her time in solo passages, ensuring that she extracted all the feeling from each note. Her intense concentration meant it did not matter that the Albert Hall was not entirely filled with sound, since Little was utterly engaging. Astonishingly, Little and the BBC Philharmonic had achieved the impossible: they had turned the Albert Hall into an intimate space. 

Little’s performance was exemplary, but it could only have been so with the support of the BBC Philharmonic. The sigh of strings that opened the third movement was a reminder that they too could be beautiful. Moments of glory for the full orchestra in this work were occasional and brief, but when they came they were sublime. Here was Moeran giving us a brief glimpse of something else, something beyond that is just out a reach. This refusal to give the audience everything made it moving but never sentimental. 

Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith is quirky and compact: flitting between many characters in a short space of time. Yet like Moeran’s concerto, Mena prevented the BBC Philharmonic from going overboard or from peaking too early. Though there are sharp changes in character and mood between variations, Mena kept the orchestra’s playing understated. Even in the fourth variation, with its greater excitement, its newfound energy was brief, as Mena would not let this excitement take over. A glimpse of romanticism in the swirling strings in the seventh variation was, again, kept as only a glimpse. And even in the Finale, when they could no longer contain themselves as the full orchestra burst out, there was still a sense of restrain. Mena and the BBC Philharmonic could be exuberant and exciting, but it was always brief and never excessive.

David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight was a good companion piece to Walton’s. It too is compact and brief, and both works displayed Mena’s skill as a conductor. In Walton’s sixth variation, the focus of attention darted around the orchestra. Horne uses a similar device in his depiction of a fantastical aerial journey. The orchestra sounded as though it was constantly on the move, but they were completely under Mena’s control who was always remained one step ahead. 

The intimacy and restrain of the concert so far meant that the BBC Philharmonic had produced few momentous climaxes. Whilst there had been some highpoints in Walton, Moeran and Horne, they had been brief and strictly prevented from going overboard. These works do not have a clear trajectory; they do not aim for some grand revelatory climax at their close.

However, the overall concert did. With Elgar’s Enigma Variations the concert had its culmination. Yet even here, Mena ensured that the orchestra did not peak too soon. The opening statement of the theme was tentative and held back. Nevertheless, Mena was not always successful in capturing the personal portraits of Elgar’s friends that the variations depict. The second variation, H.D.S.-P, and the eighth, W.N. were taken too fast, not giving enough time for these characters to speak. Yet this faster speed was not always a drawback. The famous “Nimrod” variation was quicker than usual, and some might have lamented the resulting loss of weight. But it removed the movement from its gloomy association with Remembrance Day. Given that Nimrod depicts Elgar’s closest musical friend, his German editor August Jaeger, its faster speed was fitting. It meant it was not sad but endearing.

The BBC Philharmonic was finally allowed its full glory in the work’s Finale: E.D.U., which portrays the composer himself. With the entrance of the Albert Hall’s great organ, it was the first time that the orchestra shamelessly filled the hall. It was the climax that the whole evening had been building to. And it was magnificent.