music : The Proms

Nicholas Williams greets the octogenarian energy of Elliott Carter
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Wednesday evening, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were at the Royal Albert Hall for the world premiere of Adagio tenebroso by 86-year- old Elliott Carter - doyen, as they say, of American composers. While younger reputations briefly rise and fall on the breeze of publicity, this is the thing as Verdi and Strauss showed it could be: a lifetime of creative aspiration crowned by a ripe old age of creative mastery.

As it happnes, mastery in Carter's case is not too strong a word. On offer, of course, was the craftsmanly ease of a well-honed orchestral method. But beyond that went the innate faculty of purpose by which a composer projects exactly what he wishes to hear, like an artist drawing a perfect circle.

Adagio tenebroso, a BBC commission, is the second tranche of a three- part orchestral work of which the first segment, a lively Partita, was heard last year and the third is still in progress. Standing alone before Elgar's Falstaff and the Brahms Violin Concerto, it made complete sense in itself, while the remote conclusion - nebulous chords unwinding in suspended animation - implies fresh, up-tempo adventures in a Carterian rush of energy.

A few composers have already planted footsteps in this poetic world: Holst by way of Egdon Heath, Sibelius through the dour landscapes of his Fourth Symphony. Technically, they are miles apart: Carter's layers of evolving material, particularly clear in the extremities of treble and bass to be heard in his new work, are uniquely his own. But by different ways, all three composers arrived at the same place - or, in Carter's case, floated above it. For this one-time teacher of Greek drew his inspirations from a Latin poem by Richard Crashaw in which a bubble, floating over the earth, reflects the scenes of joy and sorrow that pass below.

From an abrupt opening of a rising minor third on trumpets and clarinets, Adagio tenebroso built a 17-minute span in which the bubble passed over the sadder parts of life. A plaintive oboe melody came briefly to the foreground before dissolving in a halo of divided strings. Solemn chords on trombones and tubas, echoes of the abyss, gave way to calmer paragraphs with space for more settled solos from horn and trumpet, whose promise of repose was in turn disrupted by a short, fierce climax. And then it was back once more to the grave, creeping counterpoint of tubas and piccolos in slow motion, conducted by Andrew Davis with the same unyielding control of tempo he'd shown elsewhere in the work.

A bleak vision for an octogenarian, it was none the less a vision, not an indulgence. Carter remains a uniquely objective and optimistic artist. Nearing his 87th birthday, he stares these troubles boldly in the face and moves on.