Proms; Majesty of the modernisers


OLIVER KNUSSEN'S Prom could have served as an easy way into 20th- century music; a pity, then, that there were so few people in the Albert Hall to benefit from the introduction.

Knussen began with Messiaen's L'Ascension, an early (1932-33), four-movement orchestral suite that underlines how swiftly he found his own language, and where it had its roots. The second movement, "Serene Alleluias of a Soul Which Desires Heaven", is full of pastoral, "Stravinsky-meets-Canteloube" ornamentation; and the rich Ravelian textures of the third are buoyant with the rhythms of dance.

George Benjamin first made his mark at the Proms in 1980, aged 20. After the initial fuss, he seemed to disappear from view to get on with composing the music he wanted to produce.

"Sometime Voices", a 1996 work for baritone, chorus and orchestra, setting a short passage from "The Tempest", shows what a strong voice he himself has acquired. Here was a work with an absolutely secure harmonic basis and scoring that was genuinely inventive.

"Sometime Voices" begins over the whirring of three xylophones struck with side-drum sticks - an extraordinary noise - as the chorus call up Caliban (sung here by the indispensable David Wilson-Johnson). The orchestra gradually trips into life, and again the chorus calls Caliban. The music rises to an extended climax, and the baritone sings his last declamatory lines, the voice veiled as if he were slipping back into sleep.

And after sleep, an explicit indulgence: Robin Holloway's "Hymn to the Senses" for unaccompanied chorus, written in 1990. At half-an-hour long, it's a bold gesture which requires confident projection of pitch, and the composer must have been well pleased with the rock-steady intonation of the BBC Singers, under Stephen Cleobury.

Holloway stretches his forces to the practical limit: though his harmonies are basically diatonic-triadic, he allows himself a considerable degree of chromatic freedom; the result is a rather English sensuality.

John Fuller's texts suggest an M-shape, swinging past touch, smell and taste in its first span and sound and sight in the second, and allowing the music a point of rest on a recurrent phrase that invokes all of the senses.

Holloway is careful to vary his textures - Fuller's "Sound" and "Taste", for example, he treats as bright interludes within his larger structures, the trumpets evoked in his music reflecting the heraldic images in Fuller's often witty poems.

After three works of this character, there was no point in imposing some classical sobriety on the audience, and the evening closed with Scriabin's heady "Poem of Ecstasy", the sketches for which, indeed, initially bore the title "Po'me orgiaque".

Knussen's reading was gloriously unabashed, both sensitive to the delicate perfumes of Scriabin's more langorous moments, and exultant in the sweeping power of his surging climaxes.

I don't recall a performance that more directly underlined Scriabin's debt to Debussy's "La Mer", first performed just a year before "The Poem of Ecstasy" was begun.


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