Robert Cowan on a pair of Prom premieres from Steve Reich

music Ensemble Modern
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Noisy, relentless and brittle, George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique suggests a cliched caricature of what the "man in the street" might expect "modern" music to sound like. The idiom is post-Stravinskian, the effects as dated as a Marinetti manifesto and the musical content extremely thin. The 1926 premiere saw yelling and punching, although the modified version given at Thursday's Prom brought the house down. Antheil's instrumental arsenal includes pianos, tam-tam, bass drums, electric bells and aeroplane propellers (here pre-recorded). The clamorous climax incorporates mad xylophone glissandos and loud alarm bells: had there been a fire alert, no one would have noticed. And was it worth the bother? For interest's sake, perhaps. Antheil may have been an enfant terrible; he may even have been an innovator of sorts, but he was certainly no Varese. In fact the Ballet seems to me more like cerebral Spike Jones, as earthbound and ephemeral as Varese is airborne and perennial.

Steve Reich benefited greatly from the comparison. His Proverb, a BBC commission still "in progress", calls for a vocal quintet backed by two electric organs and two vibraphones. The gnomic text is taken from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value, while the music recalls both Perotin and the distinctive pulse patterns that Reich used in The Desert Music and Sextet.

While Proverb is skilfully fashioned, if shaved virtually to the bone, City Life, the other Reich on the bill, employs a mass of highly contrasted instrumental sonorities. As in Different Trains, taped sounds and speech fragments are of central importance, although here they're played via sampler keyboards, but City Life presents a more consistent pulse than its relatively short-breathed predecessor: you can "lock into" its language more easily and the textures have greater variety. The five distinct movements incorporate foot-tapping rhythms and warm waves of harmony, a fierce canon between samplers (sounding rather like a manic gathering of sea-birds), a darker section recalling the death-haunted central movement of Different Trains and a riotous finale, replete with screaming alarms. Unlike the vacuous gesturing of Ballet Mecanique, however, there was meaning, colour and genuine dramatic impact. Peter Eotvos directed a vigorous performance, although I could imagine even tighter handling of the work's rhythmic base. Still, it all sounded splendid.

Alas, when it came to Les Noces, Stravinsky's voice-and-ivory ritual was quite defeated by the acoustics. The singing was excellent but the four pianists could barely project beyond the stage while the percussion were inordinately loud. It was also a mite too civilised, although being in such disruptive company may have created the illusion of good manners - no bad thing at a wedding.