music Royal Albert Hall, London

Stephen Johnson threatens to emigrate if anyone touches the Proms
Click to follow
Say what you like about the Proms; criticise any aspect of them you want, from the programme-planning to the wretched inadequacy of the Albert Hall toilet facilities. But the day their demise is announced is the day to leave this island for ever. In what other London concert season could you hear, on two successive nights, two very interesting new orchestral works, splendidly played, with a great performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto thrown in for good measure?

John Casken's Violin Concerto was premiered on Wednesday, by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier, with Dmitry Sitkovetsky. The Concerto wasn't actually written for Sitkovetsky, but it suited him perfectly. Casken acknowledges Russian influences in the work and at one point in the central slow movement the violins' pizzicato figures clearly recalled one Russian favourite: Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. Casken has always had a gift for memorable, singing phrases but few of his works have been as melodically fertile as this.

Not everything about the Concerto is so instantly comprehensible. I admit I still don't quite understand some of Casken's harmonic thinking; the harmonies can be very beautiful, but it isn't always easy to hear how they relate to one another. But this is the kind of piece that invites the listener back to explore and I hope it won't be too long before we're given the opportunity - ideally with the same performers.

The following evening, it was the turn of Peter - sorry, Sir Peter - Maxwell Davies (can this very likeable knight be the blaspheming enfant terrible of 25 years ago?). It's a long time since anything of his has shown the urgency of Worldes Blis, the Second Taverner Fantasy or Stone Litany. Too many of his recent works sound like an uneasy truce between the old modernist Max and the born-again Orcadian populist. In The Beltane Fire, a kind of ballet suite from a ballet that never got written, the populist is in the ascendant. Quite a lot of it is clearly tonal, with bodrum, fiddle and harp evoking Gaelic folk music in a style that might not have greatly surprised the younger Vaughan Williams.

When it isn't tonal, the melodic and narrative clarity of The Beltane Fire is still slightly disconcerting. The final exhilarating dance section might not have completely forgotten Schoenberg, but there are stronger echoes of Copland and Britten.

The response to Grigory Sokolov's playing of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto after the interval was ecstatic, but then this was an outstanding performance, in which intonation problems hardly seemed to matter. Tortelier must take some of the credit for the thrilling sense of controlled climax in the finale, but Sokolov is clearly a major pianistic force. No doubt we'll be hearing more of him ere long.

Comments