Arts: The agony and the ecstasy

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SUNDAY'S PROM got off to a distinctly rough start with the Prelude and First Suite from Sibelius's music for The Tempest, one of the composer's last substantial scores. It contains some shattering music - the enthrallingly harsh Prelude, all sawing strings and pitiless winds, and the delirious Storm at the end.

In-between are some genially rustic numbers but there are others, for example Ariel's Song, which are unexpectedly sinister. Evidently, Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had spent the greater part of their rehearsal time on other things than this arresting, seldom-heard music.

Knussen's Horn Concerto had a somewhat shaky London premiere at the Proms three years ago, but fared better on this occasion, with a bright-toned, confident soloist in David Pyatt. It struck me, though, as a rather tadpole- like work, short though it is, with the bouncy energy in the early stages becoming etiolated in the cadenza and ending.

We heard Stravinsky's Variations `Aldous Huxley in memoriam' twice - following tradition, Knussen told us - which always makes me feel as though I'm being taught a lesson rather than given a bonus. Five minutes long, the music is crystal clear anyway, so a repeat simply suggests that if we haven't had a problem, then perhaps we should take the time to think again.

There was much more to untangle in Magnus Lindberg's Aura, but no danger of submitting to it twice, as the piece lasts 35 minutes.

After writing Marea and Joy in 1990, both of which the London Sinfonietta introduced to London, Lindberg appears to have become the victim of his own success, as a succession of prestigious commissions has allowed him to find ways of keeping ever larger orchestras as fully occupied as possible.

To wed maximalist textures to a sense of harmonic direction is an ambitious project, but Aura - completed in 1994 as a memorial to Lutoslawski - is bloated and bombastic, and any power its harmonic plan might have finds itself swamped by orchestral display for its own sake.

Except for some relatively focused thrills and spills in the third of its four main sections, the sonic bombardment seems so generalised and impersonal that one just wants to take shelter from it.

One of Lindberg's teachers in Finland, Einojuhani Rautavaara, had a world premiere in Monday's Prom, given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their conductor, Joseph Swensen. Rautavaara is now 70, and the title of Autumn Gardens refers, disarmingly, both to his age and to his love of gardening.

Death, he says, is also nearby, although it doesn't cloud the idyllic, meandering music for long.

Rautavaara's style is chromatically tonal, and if he were English, he would be dubbed "cowpat" or "watercress". As he is Finnish, you might think of Sibelius's Sixth Symphony - although that's rather too flattering a comparison - and Rautavaara lacks both Sibelius's austerity and tension.

Still, Rautavaara's music is clearly warm and honestly felt, and to sustain nearly half an hour in this luscious pastoral mode is not only artistically brave but also technically hard work. It's just a pity that the orchestra's tuning left something to be desired.

They did much better in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which they really dusted down and played with immense brio and emphasis.

Adrian Jack

Monday's Prom will be rebroadcast tomorrow at 2pm on Radio 3

Further information about the Proms concerts can be found on the BBC's website, at: