Arts: A showcase of music from every sphere

ONE OF the most welcome strands in this year's BBC Proms has been the music of Karol Szymanowski.

The critical cliche applied to the style Szymanowski developed from the time of the First World War is "scented", as if there were something reprehensible about it (real composers sweat). Certainly, the First Violin Concerto of 1916, played by Raphael Oleg and the Czech Philharmonic on Tuesday, offers an elusive experience, opening and closing in a vein of intoxicating nature worship, but becoming remarkably unpredictable for most of its 25-minute span.

No composer of the time commanded a more complex harmonic vocabulary than Szymanowski - it does not seem monotonous or obsessive, like Scriabin's. The orchestral writing is dazzling in its intelligence.

The great thing about Tuesday's performance was its relaxed naturalness - it was not pushed too hard - and Raphael Oleg played with an ideally distilled quality.

The same qualities of moderation and discipline informed Libor Pesek's conducting of Brahms's First Symphony, which almost seemed to play itself, without being routine or boring. What a pleasure to hear such lovely string sound, even under the considerable pressure of Brahms's demands.

On Thursday, three of Szymanowski's Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess, composed a year before the First Violin Concerto, were sung radiantly by Valdine Anderson, with members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Mark Elder, supplying Szymanowski's own arrangement of the original piano part.

Succinct and with the most delicate endings, they pose none of the concerto's labyrinthine challenges to the listener. But Mark Elder evidently thought these might be found in Debussy's Jeux, which he prefaced with his own spoken synopsis, making much of the triangular flirtation which was the ballet's subject.

It was played with great precision and clarity, if rather steadily, as was Stravinsky's early Scherzo fantastique, a refinement of Rimsky Korsakof, at the start of the programme. The concert was something of a showcase for the Welsh orchestra, which has improved out of all recognition. Holst's The Planets was stunning.

What a remarkable work it is - confident and clear. The introduction of wordless women's voices in "Neptune", the final movement, is brilliantly apt, and had my spine tingling as the off-stage BBC National Chorus of Wales faded away, repeating the same two chords hypnotically.

Adrian Jack