Classical: Review: Havoc just leads to disaster

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GILES SWAYNE'S CRY, premiered in 1980 by the BBC Singers and subsequently heard twice at the Proms, is a "hymn to Creation" for 28 voices. I yield to no one in my admiration for this ingenious choral epic, at least in the earlier version without electronics. But its sequel, Havoc, again commissioned by the BBC for the Singers, and first performed in the late-night Prom on Wednesday, is nothing short of a distended disaster.

CRY used unaccompanied voices to depict the first seven days of the world, in music effortlessly fusing sometimes surprisingly consonant harmonies and extended vocal techniques. Havoc, as Susan Bradshaw's programme note suggests, is a kind of "deconstruction" for the millennium of some of the earlier work's processes, reflecting on man's damage to Creation via a kind of journey into space. The composer includes parts of four "fronting" voices from the choir, plus a 21-piece instrumental group (the Endymion Ensemble), two percussionists, prominent roles for solo counter-tenor (Robin Tyson) and solo flute (Philippa Davies) and a Baroque- like continuo group which included a magnificent theorbo.

What Swayne unfortunately then proceeds to do, for one of the longest 75 minutes I have spent in a concert hall - is to squander these impressive and expensive resources on setting mind-numbing texts of his own devising (plus a bit of Sophocles' Antigone) to music which is merely a pale shadow of the brilliant fusion achieved in CRY. Occasional flashes of beauty are submerged in embarrassing and dreadful banalities; again, electronic effects spoil the impact. Stephen Cleobury and the musicians under him appeared totally dedicated. It has not been a particularly good year for new music at the Proms, and it was a shame that things had to end this way.

With the first of two appearances, earlier the same evening, by the Bavarian State Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, it was hard, if you had heard Monday's or Tuesday's concerts, not to make invidious comparisons with Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. The Bavarians are a different sort of band: earthier brass, less silky strings, altogether a brasher sound. Mehta is a different sort of conductor he paints with a broad brush, yet seems autocratic.

Richard Strauss, sole subject of the programme, on the 50th anniversary of his death, is a different kind of composer from, say, the Mahler of Tuesday's Prom. Don Juan was driven forward, with little inclination to linger on solos. In the Four Last Songs, Soile Isokoski's unyielding tone and statuesque platform manner left me cold. Perhaps only Rattle and the VPO could make me really enjoy the Hollywooden Alpine Symphony, but there was some fine playing. After that the tone, I suppose inevitably, went further downhill, with the Dance Of The Seven Veils and Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries as encores.

Keith Potter

Wednesday's early evening Prom will be rebroadcast by Radio 3 on 15 Sept at 2pm.