proms round-up

Kurtg and Dillon

Music Projects / London

Mozart and Schubert

COE / Harnoncourt

Electronic instruments may come and go, but the voice remains the source of human music, and with it the garnish of meaning from the word. That's something we take for granted, but last Friday's late-night Prom, with Music Projects / London and the vocal group Polyphony, drew on four centuries of history to make it the subject of this year's most challenging concert.

Two major new works of opposing tendencies, both conducted by Richard Bernas, formed the axis for this adventure: Gyorgy Kurtg's Samuel Beckett: What is the Word? and James Dillon's Oceanos. The former picked over the dry bones of words and syllables, the latter (a BBC commission and world premiere) engulfed its words in a flood of orchestral timbre.

The watery image seems right for a work that forms the close of Dillon's "Nine Rivers" project, 14 years in the making, and three hours in total. In Oceanos, the river of rivers, all things mixed: languages, sounds, ideas from earlier in the cycle. Strenuous episodes for 16 singers are ranged round four ensemble interludes, brimming with hyperactive music that dares the ear to make shapes and phrases from its turbulence, yet which moves with steady tread to a climax of thunderous drumbeats. At times inaudible, the Latin text, about the wise man perceiving the ways of heaven in the flux of nature, has the role of a slogan. It floats like a banner above the music. Dillon's manners are modernist with a vengeance, yet boast a confidence that is almost Wagnerian.

By contrast, Kurtg's setting of Beckett's last text took a scalpel to language, the composer, as ever, packing multiple meanings into the sparsest of musical ideas. The remarkable story of actress Ildik Monyk's seven- year battle to regain the power of speech was the inspiration; and she was there on Friday, a tiny figure on the Albert Hall stage, yet filling it with a dramatic force that was half tragic, half vaudeville. As she threaded her way through the Hungarian words with the aid of an upright piano, a quintet of singers rendered them into English while responses from instrumental groups in the balcony paced her hesitant progress through sound, syntax and sentence. So very far apart, the arts of are perhaps beyond reconciliation. Yet, in their very existence, we might read a sign of health in new music that too often is perceived as moribund.


Lest anyone thought encores were spontaneous, a harp and percussion were prominently placed each side of the stage at Sunday's Prom, left idle during the main part of the programme - Mozart's Prague Symphony and Schubert's Great C major. When the stamping started after the Schubert, the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt stilled the audience and said that, in case there were another power cut this year, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe had brought its own electricity. A safe joke, at that stage, given the audience response, but there wasn't much of a charge in the Mozart, for Harnoncourt's batonless beat excited the surface of the music with little sense of tension beneath it.

By now it's not uncommon to begin Schubert's colossal C major Symphony at a fair walking pace, which minimises, or even eliminates, the change of gear when the main Allegro arrives. Harnoncourt began a little more slowly than some and, as in the Mozart, rose to the bait of each opportunity for temperamental display, so that the severity of Schubert's architecture was modified by subjective squinting. There was a lot of easing at the ends of paragraphs in the second movement, even a suspicion of vacillation, but the Scherzo started with a deep spring and some energetically pointed woodwind playing, although the slight delay underlining the final note of each phrase inevitably came to seem mannered. A pity, at the end of this long movement, that Harnoncourt allowed tuning to break the tension. Still, the finale, taken really briskly, was the best thing, with a surprising but effective diminuendo on the last chord. If the audience might have preferred a bang, they got a few in Johann Strauss II's fidgety overture to The Gipsy Baron.