Prom 41, Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture

You don't need to be a statistician to work out that Prom audiences are down this year. The London Sinfonietta's late-night programme of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Hesketh and Henze drew a crowd that might just have fitted in the Purcell Room.

The opener was Stravinsky's Chorale Variations on [Bach's] Vom Himmel Hoch, written in 1955-56 for performance in St Mark's, Venice. The Albert Hall has the same cavernous acoustic, so it was a pity that no one at the Beeb or the Sinfonietta thought to take advantage of the building to breathe some monumentality - quite literally - into the music. There was, after all, plenty of room to spread out a bit.

If in the Chorale Variations Stravinsky hid behind Bach, his Canticum sacrum was composed during his conversion to serialism, and finds him balanced between the style of the Symphony of Psalms and a suck-it-and-see dalliance with Webern. The two soloists - tenor Christopher Gillett and bass-baritone David Wilson-Johnson - gave it their best but couldn't make it gel.

Iannis Xenakis, who died in February, hadn't tackled a single text before he set Sophocles's Polla ta dhina for women's voices and instrumental ensemble in 1962. But why bother with a text when you relegate it to a chant on a single note? Beneath that static ritual, the orchestra heaves in frustrated energy, with piccolo shrieks and seething string glissandi. All that power and nowhere to go.

Kenneth Hesketh, born in Liverpool in 1968, has an impressive lineage: his teachers include Edwin Roxburgh, Simon Bainbridge, Joseph Horovitz and tonight's conductor, Oliver Knussen. The Circling Canopy of Night, composed in 1999 for an ensemble of 16, is a study in reconciling weightlessness and purpose. Melodic lines emerge and disappear into light-filled textures as the work promises momentum, only to lapse into stasis. The acuity of Hesketh's ear isn't in doubt, and with a bolder approach to structure he could be a considerable voice.

Henze's First Symphony (1947, rev. 1963) finds the composer struggling to find his own voice amid those of Berg and Stravinsky. The voice came more swiftly than the form: his early symphonies are ballets manqués, and it doesn't take much imagination to see the slow movement of No. 1 as a pas de deux danced between two lovers in some sea-front bar. The brash finale is a hesitant toccata that owes much to Henze's mentor, Karl Amadeus Hartmann; Oliver Knussen's secure direction helped send it on its way with a final swirl of excitement.

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