Prom 6: Gerstein/Oramo/BBCSO *****; Prom 7: Concert Spirituel/Niquet ****


There seems to be a rule about new Proms commissions: the slighter the work, the more highfalutin must be the blurb. This certainly held good for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s three-minute squib on the opening night, and the exegesis for Fung Lam’s ‘Endless Forms’ didn’t bode well either.

Its title was apparently inspired by the last sentence of Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’: it would have evolution at its core, while also ‘reflecting the Buddhist concept of a journey towards spiritual enlightenment’; it would ‘trace a path from darkness to light, through the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth’. There would be ‘no traditional linear narrative’: ‘signposts and allusions’ would be ‘enmeshed in the work’s multiple layers’. The author of this effusion has a PhD in music theory, while Lam himself has one in composition. 

But this nine-minute piece proved the irrelevance of such guff, and also showed that this 33-year-old Hong Kong-born composer has a distinctive voice. Needing no special pleading, it trod an assured path through a conventionally tonal landscape, with bright woodwind phrases penetrating gentle washes of colour, and string textures of seductive warmth and transparency. For much of its length it felt more like the suggestion of lyricism than the thing itself, but its climax had a Mahlerian lusciousness: this may contain the seeds of something more substantial.

But the reason for the full hall came with Kirill Gerstein playing Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. This young Russian-American is one of the hottest guns in the game, and here he was superb. Gradually asserting his dominance, he extracted fire and thunder from the first movement, and in the second sent his audience into the ‘Brief Encounter’ dream they had come for: with Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra echoing his solo utterances, a lovely spell was created. His encore was a knockout: ‘I got rhythm’, with daintily skewed jazz harmonies and crystalline high figurations.

Herve Niquet and his 80-member period-instrument Le Concert Spirituel were convened to breathe life back into the music of Louis XIV’s court, and in Prom 7 they gave Handel’s Water Music the treatment. The rumbustious roughness of it all - with the unfamiliar pitches of the ‘natural’ horns - was, if I may be excused the pun, a tonic.