Proms: Gubaidulina Viola Concerto, European premiere Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
While certain spots on BBC Radio 3 - those mornings and those late afternoons - continue to be relentlessly dumbed down (and more is yet to come), at the Proms there's not a hint of dumbing or patronising: it's simply the greatest festival of the world's greatest music. And, unabashedly, it's spiced with some of the world's greatest new music. No need for simple-minded playlists - Debussy, Gubaidulina and Shostakovich with a regional orchestra will bring them in. Lots of them! Of course, the judicious admixture of a glamorous soloist, an important European premiere and a fizzy American conductor does send out strong signals. And, indeed, the Royal Albert Hall was packed on Tuesday night for Kent Nagano and the Halle Orchestra.

The steamy atmosphere seemed extraordinarily well suited to the opening work - the Symphonic Fragments from Debussy's The Martyrdom of St Sebastian. Given the temperature in the hall, the opening wind passage was well nigh miraculously in tune. This work, stripped of its dramatic mumbo-jumbo - an impossible mix of Gabriele D'Annunzio, Fokine, Bakst and Ida Rubinstein - holds some of Debussy's finest music. Nagano lovingly coaxed out the voluptuous harmonies while maintaining a diaphanous string texture. Stravinsky's Firebird seems to walk out of this exotic Parsifal-inspired piece - or is it perhaps the other way round? Stravinsky's work just preceded St Sebastian by a year or two.

Debussy's exotic colours were followed by those of the Tartar composer, Sofia Gubaidulina. Her Viola Concerto, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra specifically for the Russian soloist Yuri Bshmet, received its world premiere a few months ago under the baton of Nagano. Here was its European premiere.

It is a substantial work, lasting some 35 minutes. Balance of orchestra to soloist is always tricky but Gubaidulina separates the two protagonists in much of the concerto or keeps the scoring to the lightest of percussion - celesta, antique cymbals. The soloist is worked hard: long solo passages sweep up and down the instrument, often in an insistent octave figure. Gubaidulina uses a solo string quartet - violin, viola, cello and double- bass - with tuning a quarter-tone flat but, given the heat and the difficulty in picking out this separate sound, the altered tuning went for little in the hall. Three Wagner tubas add sonority to moments of a work that is funereal and gloomy, a wistful little string motto returning sporadically like a chorus. A full orchestral tutti is delayed to a point where the structure seems dangerously to sag but Bashmet - so in control, such a masculine, gutsy player - ensured that this performance was moving and impressive.

In Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, terror and tenderness sit cheek by jowl: Stalin represented as a whirlwind; Shostakovich whispering or screaming his own name - represented by the notes D, E flat, C and B (DSCH in German notation). The Halle wind and horns were in particularly fine form but the overall horror, the grotesqueness, the deadliness of the climaxes, did not bite. But, whatever the faults, you will struggle to find anything on Classic FM that compares with the BBC Proms. Concert repeated 2pm today R3 Annette Morreau

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