Classical review: Brahms and Stravinsky are done to death at the Proms, but Django Bates triumphs

Prom 61 – Frank Peter Zimmerman, BBCSO, Josep Pons (**)

Prom 62 – Norrbotten Big Band, Beloved, Django Bates (****)

In a labyrinthine programme-note, the German composer Charlotte Seither explained that her new work, “Language of Leaving”, was inspired by a fragment of 17 century Italian poetry: this seemed to her ‘the right text to which to write music which is not founded on a text at all’.

She followed that odd thought with a spiel about hope, despair, and the survival of shadows, but that was not what I got from the piece, which began with a wild flurry of piercing whistles and whining violins over a steady drone. Muted trumpets bleated like sheep, trombones neighed, and rattles made cicada sounds: the whole auditorium seemed to be bursting with animal life.

It didn’t matter what it ‘meant’: for me, we were on a pullulating hillside in a hot, dry place. Seither’s compositional strategy was to divide the BBC Singers into twelve groups and get them shadowing different instruments, but since one couldn’t make out where the sounds were coming from, that didn’t matter either. All that mattered was that, with the aid of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Josep Pons, she’d created a lovely place for the listener to hang about in.  

Apart from two Slavonic chants by Stravinsky (authentically delivered by the BBC Singers) the rest of this Prom was mediocre in the extreme. It’s quite something to make Brahms’s “Violin Concerto in D major” sound routine, but that was Frank Peter Zimmerman’s melancholy achievement. The best that could be said was that his tone was pure: there was no drama in the first movement, no heart-stopping moment in the second, no sense of liberation in the Gypsy finale, with Pons apparently powerless to galvanise the performance. Even Zimmerman’s encore, a Bach prelude, was rattled through like an exercise. Adding insult to injury, Pons and co then delivered the most slipshod account of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” I have ever heard, with what should have been diamond-bright, razor-sharp effects reduced to a dog’s dinner. Was there no time for a rehearsal? 

But it was a pleasure to enter the agreeably unassuming world of Django Bates, enriched not only by his regular trio Beloved but also by the Norrbotten Big Band for a late Prom in celebration of Charlie Parker. Bates’s art is diffuse and unpretentious, and while some Parker standards stood proud, others skidded all over the shop. The best was a version of “Donna Lee” which dissolved in a diaphanous haze.