Classical review: Harrison Birtwistle and Nishat Khan unveil their Proms premieres

PCM 5 – BBC Singers/Nash Ensemble/KokProm 39 – Khan/BBC NOW/Atherton

It’s customary for new works commissioned by the BBC and premiered at the Proms to get a detailed introduction in the programme – but not if they premiere at the Cadogan Hall.

Given the Proms’ massive promotional budget, such cheese-paring on what should be seen as an essential adjunct to performance is idiotic, particularly when the work in question is by a composer of Harrison Birtwistle’s stature. Thus it was that we were left to glean what we could from the routine banalities of the Radio 3 presenter, plus a whimsical and brief onstage interview with the composer himself.

The Moth Requiem, said Birtwistle with a twinkle, was a lament for the exotic species which were now dying out, as he himself would soon be doing. Scored for women’s voices, alto flute, and three harps, this 20-minute work was emphatically not about going gentle into that good night: anger was the keynote, as staccato semi-whispers repeatedly exploded into violent surges of sound.

The BBC Singers plus players from the Nash Ensemble gave a virtuoso performance, but beneath the busy surface it was hard to discern an underlying structure: Birtwistle seemed to be experimenting with effects for his own benefit rather than ours.

This was one of those rare days of joined-up programming, when the lunchtime menu segued seamlessly into the evening one. In addition to two rugged motets from the 16th century Eton Choirbook, the lunchtime concert had also included three of Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, and Prom 39 brought yet another work from Holst’s Sanskrit period. If Indra had a superfluous story attached, that didn’t matter: with its Wagnerian echoes, it worked very nicely as a tone-poem pure and simple.

The main event of the evening was the world premiere of Nishat Khan’s The Gate of the Moon. Like Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan before him, this Calcutta-born sitar player has been impelled to create a sitar concerto with Western orchestration: with amplification, the two elements can be brought to a sort of parity. Unlike Birtwistle, Nishat Khan was invited to puff his piece beforehand and did so fulsomely, describing his instrument as ‘the unknown traveller introducing a mystical and positive energy’.

That may have been pushing it, but there was no vanity in this concerto. With the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under David Atherton, the sitar gradually induced the Western instruments to speak its strongly-inflected language, and if we weren’t transported, we did enter a pleasant sonic realm.