Proms 36 and 37, Royal Albert Hall, London, review: 'These responses to war are fighting fit'


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“Is there a sound addressed not wholly to the ear?” William Carlos Williams’ question echoes through the sonic patterning of Steve Reich’s 1983 The Desert Music, centrepiece of Prom 37, but it’s one that could have served as a subtitle to the whole evening.

Musical responses to conflict recurred throughout the evening, moving from Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (composed in 1914) in Prom 36 to Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, written shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and The Desert Music with its textual response to the bombing of Nagasaki.

The BBC SO and Sakari Oramo were joined by soloist Janine Jansen for the Vaughan Williams, a performance that downplayed loveliness in favour of a thoughtful meditation that banished any easy-listening associations – despite Oramo’s indulgent speeds.

Late Night Reich saw conflict take aural form. Meaning was wrestled from words in the Babel of distorting sound that is Reich’s early tape piece It’s Gonna Rain, before Endymion and the BBC Singers took up the narrative with a virtuosic performance of The Desert Music. This might have been the chamber arrangement of the work, but pulsing through the Royal Albert Hall, the performance had symphonic scope.