Panic about Panic, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's controversial commission, was premature. Nothing could have interrupted it short of a nuclear test, and that would have had to catch the two brief lulls. Half the time you couldn't even hear what the woodwind were doing. This was a quarter-hour of fast, male violence, both as sound and as musical feeling - the ultimate up-yours piece. For the first few minutes the audience looked either awed or dumbstruck, and only the party atmosphere took the shock away.
But Panic is ultimate Birtwistle, of one sort - like his Earth Dances after Olympic training - and it ought to shock. It will now do the rounds of the braver orchestras where we can discover whether the sound balance comes off. Overall it's shaped even more dramatically than usual, the music stretching out and intensifying in its final stages as though Pan himself were growing more gigantic by the second. The long, distended, but barely broken solo melodic line is another extreme in Birtwistle terms - so far. John Harle played it with astonishing physical and expressive power, and the drummer, Paul Clarvis, matched precision with brilliance.
Other touches showed an end-of-era spirit in Sir John Drummond's last programme. Who noticed the words in the Mahler song about a donkey that judged the cuckoo a better singer than the nightingale? No prizes for detecting a view about today's musical life. We had a grand lament for an expiring queen - Dido, in Stokowski's extraordinary and rather touching arrangement of Purcell - and the Z-word, Zemlinsky, whose obscure setting of Psalm 23 turned out sensuous and safe. From Berio, a B-word like Birtwistle, there was a friendly Boccherini deconstruction at once ridiculous and poetic. Andrew Davis belted through Berlioz's Corsair and awoke the Albert Hall echo, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra were as polished as if it were the season's start. Tasmin Little played with panache and a light touch, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers' increasingly bold variants in Rule, Britannia! drew vociferous approval.
What a fudge, though: Birtwistle upsets the jingoists, and they upset the modernists. Yet they all miss the real musical issue - Davis in his speech said the season had "tried to look ahead", while most of the new music already belongs to the same, dying world of illusory power as the wave-ruling business. There's a moral in the fate of Jerusalem. The gentlemanly Parry thought he was being radical when he set Blake's fiery tract. But he underplayed the crucial passage, the dark satanic mills, and now look what happens - people wave Union Jack flags while they sing it, for heaven's sake. We change from firebrands to pillars of the Establishment before we know it. Now it's time for Nicholas Kenyon to run the Proms: as Diaghilev nearly said, etonne-nous!Reuse content