Proms: From Russia with a sense of the absurd

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The Independent Culture
rory boyle and Gerard McBurney - the two living British composers with a premiere this week - don't quite fit the usual Proms mould. Neither has a conventional publisher: something traditionally considered essential in the promotional lobbying that often attends the acquisition of a Prom commission. Both operate, compositionally, somewhat on the margins of mainstream concert life as generally viewed in London: Boyle working chiefly in Scotland, his homeland, and known partly for his commercial output and children's operas; McBurney more familiar for his musicological activities on behalf of Russian music and for scores for his brother Simon's Theatre de Complicite, than for concert compositions of his own. While the Proms remain largely closed to certain areas of endeavour - the more radical sorts of "crossover" or improvised music, for instance - it's good to see some "marginal" composers being given a hearing.

Boyle's "Capriccio" - which received its London premiere last Sunday by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland under Jun'ichi Hirokami - was designed as a showcase for these young players' considerable talents, also shown to effect in Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. "Capriccio", however, proved to be a thematically unimaginative effort overlaid with Seventies cliches, and feeling much longer than its 19 minutes.

McBurney's "Letter to Paradise" - a Proms commission premiered on Tuesday by the bass Tigran Martirossian and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth - emerged naturally out of its composer's love affair with things Russian. It sets a somewhat unhinged love letter by the Russian absurdist poet and children's writer Daniil Kharms: a letter written in 1931 to a woman whose name is close to the word for "paradise".

McBurney's complex setting of such an elliptical text is interpretable, among other things, as a critique of the former Soviet regime. His score positively teems with ideas, surrounding the vocal line with all manner of mad instrumental solos, freaky tuttis, glissandi, assorted percussive sounds and much else besides. The deployment of his orchestral forces is so inventive that the words, sung in the Russian, are hard to follow, even with the knowledge gained from the composer's brilliant pre-Prom talk. But a single hearing of this 24-minute work created a strong impression of a composer of timbral flair and real individuality, capable of generating his own rather crazy musical world from such wild shards of Russian modernism.

On either side of what seemed a good first attempt at "Letter to Paradise" were sometimes moving accounts of two ballet scores: four excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and the whole of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. The BBC National Chorus of Wales and Philharmonia Chorus delivered some evocative contributions to the latter.

Keith Potter

The writer is senior lecturer in music at the Music Department, Goldsmiths' College, London