MUSIC / Marching orders for Byrnam Wood

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The Independent Culture
YOU could plot a graph of the development of English music in the first half of this century that showed composers growing out of image-based pictorialism into structure-based abstraction; and if you wanted to be judgmental you could say it went hand in hand with the acquisition of technical competence.

But what the 1900s Pastoralist lacked in technique, his 1950s Modernist counterpart lacked in immediacy and accessibility. There was, and is, a via media, using images as structure. And last week's Proms delivered a striking new example of such a piece in Byrnam Wood, a BBC Symphony Orchestra commission from the young English composer David Sawer.

Forgetting for a moment how he spells it, Byrnam Wood signals to anyone with basic Shakespeare the idea of a wood that moves - or rather, an army disguised as a wood that moves. That's the idea behind the structure of the score, which is likewise on the move, pounding constantly forward with the rhythmic insistence of a Stravinskyan processional, but harbouring hidden musical information which only gradually reveals its martial nature.

The temper of the writing has a double quality of fantasy and menace - a musical Dungeons & Dragons, I thought - and its militariness owes more to the regretful warnings Britten makes of this sort of material (in Owen Wingrave and the War Requiem) than to genuine martial precedents - which is why the piece is so effective and more than marching-band pastiche. It had a good performance and made a strong platform for the BBCSO's associate conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who must by now be heartily sick of being hailed a second Simon Rattle but it's an unavoidable comparison. He's certainly the most accomplished and interesting young English conductor of his generation (under 30); and you had only to hear the rest of this programme - Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, and Shostakovich's 13th Symphony (bass soloist John Tomlinson) to know that.

Last week's overseas visitors to the Proms included the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus travelling light: which is to say, without a Nielsen symphony (they were warned off by the amount of Nielsen London is about to get in the forthcoming Scandinavian festival at the Barbican, as though you could have too much of such a patently good thing) but with something by Denmark's other national composer, Niels Gade.

It was a cantata called The Elf-King's Daughter, written in 1853 which makes it Nordic musical mythology contemporary with Das Rheingold. But Gade was no Wagner. The concerted writing in the score is disappointingly like Mendelssohn: considered, elegant and unremarkable. It's the solo writing (for three voices) that lifts the piece and gives it something noticeably Danish: free, light, aerated textures and the disingenuous charm of Nielsen's later music in this genre.

Dmitri Kitaenko, the DNRSO's Russian guest conductor, made a fine job of it, though; and a still better job of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky in the second half, whose fierceness shook the Albert Hall and startled even the debenture boxes into an unusually rapt attention.