Arts: Women first

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The Independent Culture
WHEN JOHN Drummond ran the Proms, you could always provoke him by mentioning the near-invisibility of women composers. So it's ironic that in this "Ascent of Man" season, nearly half the music by women should turn up in the first hour of one concert. Ascendancy of men, rather, though in Lili Boulanger's case a rise into the repertoire is well under way.

On Tuesday, the BBC Philharmonic with the CBSO Chorus featured her stirring Psalm 130 and impressed another new public with its intensity and personal voice. She died at 24, but apologies about lack of fulfilment are unnecessary. To prove the point, it was preceded by a punchy Psalm 24 which shakes down the churchy modal conventions of the time to a confident, brazen conciseness.

Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic are one of the most enduring teams around, creating strong, well-differentiated colours, finely balanced with just enough of the unpredictable to live on the edge once in a while. Debussy's La Mer featured intense stillnesses within a fleet, light context, like the mysteries of a suddenly calmed sea breeze. Growling brass, forthright woodwind and urgent momentum brought a taut directness to the Sibelius Symphony No 2.

To open Wednesday's concert, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conducted his new Spinning Jenny. Talking about it, he sounded well fired up by the clamour of the old Manchester mills that inspired it, but somehow all that dissipated into a louder version of the usual plain Max soundscape. Who else can make blaring trumpets and cascading strings sound so prim?

The late-night Tuesday Prom built a charged atmosphere around two wartime works. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, with Paul Watkins' long- drawn cello meditation its high point, showed how this vast hall can enhance extremes of intimacy by drawing concentration through far-flung space to a single focus. In Poulenc's Figure humaine, the BBC Singers' virtuosity earned an ovation. Its lightest moments went best: attempting intensity, strained tone and heavy vibrato thickened the textures, though the momentum of the final cry for freedom carried all before it.

Robert Maycock