BBC Proms 16/17: BBC NOW/Fischer/Arditti/World Routes Academy, Royal Albert Hall (3/5, 4/5)

Pascal Dusapin’s ‘String Quartet No 6’ is scored for the unusual combination of string quartet plus orchestra, and has two subtitles: ‘Hinterland’, and ‘Hapax’ (ancient Greek for ‘once’).

Its UK premiere came supported by programme-notes which threw around buzz-words like ‘conflict’, ‘ambiguities’, ‘circuitous paths’, and ‘jumps in logic’. Dusapin’s own self-encomium talked of ‘allusions’, ‘parables’, and ‘a setting where musical worlds, themselves disturbed, composite, and complex, can pour forth their feelings’. His piece had a lot to live up to.

It began quite engagingly, with orchestra and quartet taking it in turns to deliver chugging rhythms and squeaky descants: the effect was redolent of both Ligeti and Stravinsky. After ten minutes, one realised that the whole thing was based on one single chord (hapax?), albeit the fecund one which underpins the earth-dance in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The Arditti Quartet - plus the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer – laboured mightily to realise Dusapin’s flickering visions, and the whole thing was undeniably easy on the ear, but there was a striking absence of the qualities promised on the packet. By following directly afterwards, Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ – which possesses those qualities in abundance – cruelly rammed home the point.

A late Prom by the World Routes Academy was devoted to the Carnatic music of South India, and starred the singer Aruna Sairam, Hari Sivanesan on the veena lute, and the amazing Jyotsna Srikanth on the violin. Aruna’s contralto timbre had a steely edge, and Hari’s instrumental style was fluent and expressive, but one wondered how much more expressive it would have been had the amplification not been so crude. As Jonathan Katz’s programme-note observed, in Carnatic music the voice (and text) underpins everything the instruments do, and the ragas performed had an earthy eloquence.

As an experiment, I decided to listen to the last fifteen minutes in my car going home, and the contrast was shocking. There was no amplificatory blur: Aruna’s voice was full of nuance and colour, and her sotto voce moments were bewitching; the meld between her sound and that of the instruments was delicately balanced. In other words - and as with all Proms involving pianos - those who listened at home (for free) got an infinitely better deal than the poor bloody infantry at the Albert Hall. Food for thought.

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