Prom 65: BBC Singers/Ensemble Intercontemporain/Boulez, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

A call has recently been made for a rethink of the late-night Proms.

A call has recently been made for a rethink of the late-night Proms. I cherish memories of the pioneering Proms of 30-odd years ago, which included programmes at the Round House masterminded by Pierre Boulez, conductor of the concert under review here. So I sympathise with the plea to restart the practice, common in the 1970s and 1980s, of using spaces besides the Albert Hall itself, especially for late-night events.

One problem with the 10pm Proms in Albert's barn is that they often play to large numbers of empty seats. Last week, the crack Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain and the BBC Singers found themselves performing, beautifully, to a far from full house (though the audience probably numbered almost a thousand).

And the music chosen for this Prom, too, was a perfect match for the RAH. The focused textures and endless resonances conjured by Boulez as composer from three pianists, three harpists and three percussionists playing tuned percussion instruments made it seem easy for Boulez the conductor (not looking anywhere near his almost 80 years) to make sur Incises (the capitalisation recognising this work's origins in a piece called Incises, or "Incisions") a magical experience in this vast space. The hall's echo, usually an irritant, was here turned inspiringly to musical and atmospheric account.

Sur Incises isn't a work I've found easy in the past. Its 40-minute span is typically complex and its textures, though undeniably alluring, have - in the QEH, for instance - seemed too unvarying, despite the contrasts provided by some thrilling fast music as a foil to the evocative deployments of resonance. In the RAH, however, the music's overall unfolding suddenly seemed completely lucid - particularly the sequence of events in the work's second half, from a skittish section that briefly, but to spicy effect, brings in the steel pans, to the terrific climax and eventual tolling of bells.

Boulez's evocation of bells in sur Incises finds a counterpart in the closing moments of Stravinsky's Les Noces. This work, together with the Russian composer's short and rarely heard Four Russian Peasant Songs, brought on the BBC Singers and a more raucous assembly of pianos and percussion for this concert's very apt second part. The performance was incisively sharp; the soloists (Catrin Wyn-Davies, Hilary Summers, Toby Spence and Tigran Martirossian) projected vividly but not too "operatically", and the BBC Singers managed more than a hint, rather rare for them, of the true vernacular. And I think that Boulez settled for that somewhat controversial silent extra bar in the final bell sequence.

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