Prom 8: BBC Symphony Symphony Orchestra/ Davis, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

800 years of music at Cambridge was one Proms celebration for which there would be no shortage of choirs.

In fact all the composers, soloists, conductors, and - judging by the visibility of tiny flags – most of the audience had some sort of association with Cambridge University. As one of the outsiders, I was duly humbled.

Three of the choral works were new to the Proms but the World Premiere, a BBC commission, came from recent fellow of Corpus Christi College, Ryan Wigglesworth, and this has to be the first time a Proms composer has owned up to a serious of righteous “steals” (i.e. borrowings from works he has long admired) as the basis for his own musical narrative. His title, The Genesis of Secrecy, underlines his refusal to reveal what they are, though I would venture that it is Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony that illuminates the opening seconds like a warning flare.

From that source of energy Wigglesworth – who can certainly write for the orchestra – powers the momentum of his beautifully worked piece. But it is the moments of deep repose and expansion – in cor anglais and a Berg-like chorale of strings – that anchor it and tell us that these are notes that come from somewhere.

That’s the mysterious thing about music: it’s easy to recognise but hard to define what makes it special. Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs exude that certain something that makes them an almost “religious” experience. That they are the work of an agnostic is entirely irrelevant; their abiding spirituality could make believers of us all. Simon Keenlyside and Choirs from combined Cambridge colleges sang them with uplifting honesty.

Then the triptych of choral works: Stanford’s fine upstanding Magnificat and Nunc dimittis with its spookily Brahmsian orchestral writing; Jonathan Harvey’s beautiful setting Come, Holy Ghost where cathedral acoustics are all but written into the piece and celestial dissonances miraculously blur into a hypnotic consonance; and Judith Weir’s Ascending into Heaven, characteristically playful, the final wisps of choral sound on upward glissandi like little shooting stars.

One suspects that Camille Saint-Saens’ arrival at the pearly gates went something like his Symphony No.3 “Organ”. What was he doing here? An honorary degree, it seems. I would honour him solely on the basis of that seraphic tune in the slow movement. Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony strings indulged it gratefully while Thomas Trotter, with some judicious registrations, made a mighty Wurlitzer of the Royal Albert Hall organ.

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