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Classical review: Matthias Pintscher's new work falls flat, but Robin Tritschler triumphs in a Warlock song-cycle

Prom 48 – Helseth, Blaauw, BBCSSO, Pintscher (**)PCM 6 – Tritschler, Conchord Ensemble (*****)

The 42-year-old German composer Matthias Pintscher routinely wins awards, is becoming ubiquitous as a conductor, and is about to take over the music directorship of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. So when he conducts the BBC SSO in the London premiere of a new piece he’s composed, it behoves us to take notice.

In pursuit of this, the programme-essay really went to town. Pintscher’s tame apologist informed us that his Chute d’etoiles was a homage to Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture of the same name, and that the music ‘engages with’ the sculpture ‘in a complex intellectual exchange’. Pintscher’s work was ‘an eruptive sound object’ about destruction and creation, and ‘an expression of the apocalypse in the medium of sound’; the writer went on at bombastic length about the ‘Janus-faced’ use of two trumpet soloists.  

The piece itself proved a miserable anti-climax, and even its opening big bang wasn’t very loud. Trumpeters Tine Thing Helseth and Marco Blaauw employed a variety of mutes to get a variety of timbres, while the orchestra’s wind-players countered them with unpitched flutter-tongue effects. But the whole thing felt like an unguided ramble through some grim orchestral junk-yard, unleavened by even the remotest hint of drama, structure, or direction.

Prom 48’s other two works allowed a clearer assessment of Pintscher as a conductor. He managed to bring out the feline suggestiveness of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, but although he generated some lovely pianissimo passages in Stravinsky’s Firebird, he totally failed to realise that work’s warmth and excitement.

Meanwhile the BBC’s refusal to provide programme notes for its Chamber Proms meant that, yet again in this excellent series, the audience was condemned to glean what it could from some stunningly inadequate Radio 3 presentation. Philip Heseltine (1894-1930) is best known for his immersion in witchcraft (whence his assumption of the name Warlock), for the rackety life which he chose to end by gassing himself aged 36, and for the recent revelation that the art critic Brian Sewell was his illegitimate son.

But as a composer he still awaits his due, so the first-ever Proms performance of his song-cycle The Curlew was a significant event, and was made even more so through its superb rendering by tenor Robin Tritschler and the Conchord Ensemble. It was a delight to hear these gracefully-nuanced settings of poems by WB Yeats: an unacknowledged small masterpiece, worth a thousand of Pintscher’s falling stars.