Prom 39, Brabbins Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 43, Salonen Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 46, Bychkov, Royal Albert Hall, London

Decades later and we've grown to love Birtwistle's rich and strange sound world. A concert to celebrate the composer's 75th birthday is met with shock and awe – as well as affection

Even though he's reached the venerable age of 75, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's music still sounds to some listeners like a military band playing at full pelt while falling down the side of a quarry. For others, maybe a little more sophisticated, it's more like several simultaneous performances of Strauss's Elektra, but all starting at different points and each trying to outdo all the others. Yet, to judge from the reaction of the audience at the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance (Prom 39) of the second act of The Mask of Orpheus – the Proms' major celebration of the composer's birthday – a sea-change has occurred. Audiences are not merely getting used to Birtwistle's rich and strange sound-world, but are beginning to regard it with a certain affection, mingled with the undeniable shock and awe.

Shock and awe, in the context of this vast chunk of his major opera, premiered by English National Opera in 1986 and rarely revived since, is quite understandable. Using an enormous agglomeration of woodwind, brass and percussion, plus the BBC Singers, and a dozen principals representing Orpheus,Euridice, Hecate and other denizens of the underworld, the piece charts Orpheus's dream journey through 17 arches, each of them with its own striking musical character, attaining a fierce sense of momentum as it hurtles the listener along its hour-long via dolorosa, with Barry Anderson's electronic interludes adding to the blistering sonic mix.

With the BBCSO on top form under Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, startling interventions from Alan Oke and Thomas Walker, doubling as Orpheus, Christine Rice and Anna Stephany partitioning Euridice, and Claron McFadden screaming venom as Hecate, the sense of some sinister ancient ritual, endlessly renewed in Birtwistle's balefully bracing score, was thrillingly achieved. Popcorn Superhet Receiver, by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, might have made a bigger splash in less intimidating company, but its vigorous string writing was appealing anyway, even if it lost its way in the middle.

Like Birtwistle, Louis Andriessen's The Hague Hacking, which the Philharmonia introduced under Esa- Pekka Salonen in Prom 43, uses shock tactics, though much briefer ones, in its 18 minutes. With found material including the rhetorical opening chords of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody (which the Dutch composer encountered, he says, via a Tom & Jerry cartoon), plus a popular Dutch sing-along ballad celebrating its capital city, the piece flings some spicy Messiaenic harmonies into its demotic brew. But the result has none of the coherence Birtwistle brings to his much bigger task and less of an impression, while the two solo piano parts, written for the Labèque sisters, gave them few opportunities to shine.

Detlev Glanert's Shoreless River, given its UK launch by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov in Prom 46, seized far more attention. The title derives from an unfinished novel trilogy by Hans Henny Jahnn which the 48-year-old German composer is currently turning into an opera. Images of water as something limitless and mysterious loom large in this atmospheric tone-poem, which caught the audience's imagination right from the start and held on to it throughout its 25-minute duration.

The Russian pianist Denis Matsuev joined Bychkov in an immaculately realised reading of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that brought out the piece's alternate mordancy and romantic sweep, and sought out the genuine depth below the shimmering surface. After the interval, Shostakovich's epic Eleventh Symphony – ostensibly his tribute to the failed Russian revolution of 1905, but which some commentators now think comprises a samizdat criticism of the Soviet quashing of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 – was presented by Bychkov as a gigantic aural canvas with an almost visible action depicted in harsh, unforgiving colours. Shostakovich's music pins the listener down with its terror and despair. Its tragic import was unmistakable here, and devastating in its impact.



Anna Picard is away

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?