PROMS London Sinfonietta Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
The temperature of current British composition was taken at Tuesday's Prom given by the indefatigable London Sinfonietta under its young music director Markus Stenz. It made pretty alarming reading. Five pieces dating from 1990 to 1995 showed not a laugh in sight, not an ironical twist in the offing, not a hint of lightness. What did the 1980s do to the 1990s to produce such earnestness? The programme's shape suggested a descent followed by a rise; but in the event no rise took place.

Oliver Knussen's Two Organa and Simon Bainbridge's Landscape and Memory led to Birtwistle's Ritual Fragment, a memorial to the London Sinfonietta's former artistic director, Michael Vyner (its funereal nature unmistakably underlined by the banging of a big bass drum). The works by George Benjamin and Thomas Ades that followed were not destined to lift the heart but more to emphasise technical brilliance at the expense of soul (despite the skittishness implied in the title of Ades's piece, Living Toys).

Knussen's Two Organa, all of six minutes long, may have boasted the most optimistic writing of the evening, but any piece written originally for a two-octave Dutch musical box, using only the "white notes", was bound to introduce a certain lightness. Hints of minimalism were offset by medievalism in the first piece, while, in the second, some exotic scoring recalled Knussen's marvellous opera, Where the Wild Things Are.

But the evening's two most satisfying pieces came significantly from the two - in fact the only two - British composers to have won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, the biggest composition prize around. That Birtwistle won it a few years ago was possibly no surprise, but Bainbridge's success this year (for his deeply moving orchestral work Ad ora incerta, on poems of Primo Levi) should administer a timely reminder to Britain's concert planners that Bainbridge remains perhaps our most underrated composer. As it was, we didn't hear Ad ora - what a marvellous Prom offering that would have made - but were held instead by a work written just after it, Landscape and Memory (1995), a demanding horn concerto. What always makes this composer's music so rewarding is the clarity of texture, the purposefulness of direction. He selects material that remains recognisable throughout the work. There's not a hint of intellectual showing-off, just an inexorable sense of logic enhanced by unabashed lyricism. If compositional angst was the evening's general tone, the Sinfonietta (Michael Thompson the brilliant soloist) here raised temperatures with a heat-generating performance.

Annette Morreau