Music: Classical music - Mahler 2, the way they do it at the Vienna Phil

The Proms Royal Albert Hall, London La Boheme Chelsea and Westminster Hospital
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The Independent Culture
They came, they queued, they dropped in the asphyxiating sweat of the Albert Hall on Monday and Tuesday, but it wasn't just the temperature that made these two Proms the hottest tickets and highest body count of the season. It was the prospect of the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle: a coupling of the world's most patrician orchestra with the world's most ascendant conductor that, in the event, was like watching some fabulous youth (or so, at 44, Rattle still seems to be) riding a seasoned thoroughbred and doing it with dazzling style.

We all know about Rattle's involvement with Vienna from his recent EMI recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos. The relationship runs deep. And from these Prom performances I'd say it has something to do with his respectful but questioning approach to the awesome matter of the orchestra's past history. With the Vienna Phil, the past is all; and glorious though it is, it carries ghosts. I know no other orchestra that prints, alongside the names of its members in concert brochures, the names of its retired members. You can sense their presence like a whisper from the back desks saying this is how we do things here: the way that Richter, Strauss and Mahler taught us.

Rattle honours the tradition, uses it, but sees beyond it - as he did on Tuesday in a Mahler 2 with all the gut and muscle of his Birmingham farewell performance, and on Monday in a Beethoven 6 that would have been a soft job for the VPO but for his refusal to let them get too familiar about it. This was a reading underpinned by the "period" values Rattle has absorbed through his career. And though it wasn't comfortable to hear the VPO dilute its famous polish and abrade its radiant tone, these were small prices to pay for the experience of a great orchestra exploring its own repertory and finding new solutions to old problems.

But the big test came with a whole half-concert of Ravel - distinctly foreign ground for the Vienna Phil, despite what might appear to be a common element of charm. Charm to the Viennese is heavily upholstered sadness. To the French it's something steelier and wry, which I'm not sure the VPO quite caught in these performances. In fact, what they did with Mother Goose and La Valse didn't sound French at all. But with those ravishing elastic strings and full but subtle winds it was better than French - or at least, better than any French orchestra could deliver. So tant pis. I'll pass on authenticity and take the VPO and Rattle any time.

For the rest of the week the Proms were in an end-of-term mood, regretful that another season was drawing to a close but exhilarated that it was closing in such style. There was Evgeny Kissin. There was Zubin Mehta and the Bavarian State Orchestra to mark Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Strauss. And there was perhaps the most extraordinary new commission of the season: a vast, 80-minute choral work called Havoc, written by Giles Swayne for the BBC Singers and mixed instruments of the Endymion Ensemble.

Twenty years ago Swayne wrote a similarly epic piece for the BBC Singers called Cry, which became something of a legend in that it was rarely heard but much discussed. Havoc (not to be confused with Harrison Birtwistle's Panic) is a sister piece that takes the narrative idea of Cry and extends it. Where Cry dealt with the seven days of Creation, culminating in the handover of the world to mankind, Havoc charts the terminal mess mankind has made of things ever since; and it reads in semi-spiritual terms, like an environmental protest with cosmic ambitions but a text by Michael Tippett. In other words, it mixes the ineffably sublime and slightly tacky. There are jokes. And though the jokes remind you how difficult it is to "do" irony in music, they build into a sort of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Abyss whose tone is at least distinctive and occasionally arresting.

Complex choral symphonies alternating with oracle-like statements from a solo countertenor take the listener on a journey toward what would be complete despair but for the way the final section - designated "Nothing" - closes with a lone voice musing on the Latin word for spirit: Anima. Clearly something does survive Swayne's cataclysm, perhaps in the way that something survives Wagner's Gotterdammerung. But it's a fragile hope, expressed with nothing like the exuberant virtuosity Swayne programmes into his earlier predictions of doom. And if there's a living composer who writes with more virtuosity for voices, I don't know of him. Or her. Swayne is a master, with a sweeping sense of theatre but a sharp command of detail. He approaches his material with gusto. And though Cry, with its striking African-influenced colours, was probably the better piece, I'd say that Havoc makes a good companion. Not that I'd have the aural stamina to take them both in one sitting.

La Boheme is music that makes few demands on stamina: it's short, melodious, and could fit comfortably into a single act of Gotterdammerung. But that it happens to be about terminal illness makes it an odd choice for an audience of invalids, so I was surprised to find it staged last Sunday in the foyer of the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital - playing to people in pyjamas, wheelchairs, and attached to drips on trolleys. And as it was all done in translation, I did wonder whether, for purposes of morale, they might adapt Puccini's ending and have someone rush on in a white coat singing "Trust me Mimi, I'm a doctor". There are times when art must yield to circumstance.

But then, every circumstance of the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital Arts scheme is surprising. It provides for opera stagings fairly regularly. They are free to anyone who turns up (you don't have to be en route to surgery). And although the hospital atrium makes probably the craziest performing space I've ever seen, suspended in mid-air between two banks of hyperactive lift shafts, the improbability of it all is somehow subsumed by the sheer sense of event - which last Sunday was considerable.

The Boheme was done by a small touring company called Opera Project whose praises I sang about a year ago and who continue to count among the best enterprise of their kind around. Directed by Richard Studer, conducted by Jonathan Lyness, and with serious-impact singers, it was truly touching if not pretty damned heroic, given the conditions. And above all, it was just what opera should be doing: serving the community. As someone who has spent most of the summer staggering around operatic country houses in black-tie and with a picnic basket, I'm inclined to think that drips and dressing-gowns make a refreshing, healthier alternative.

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