The Proms / John Tavener

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The Independent Culture
APOCALYPSE now, but what of then? The old John Tavener re- emerged this week from the purple haze of Sixties pop culture. A timely reminder that he was a lot more fun before sanctification. He's never forsaken the clothes, of course, but pieces like In Alium, his 1968 Prom commission, belong exclusively to a time when religion was love and peace, a flower-child, a joss-stick, a light-show, and a Hammond organ. In Alium is all of these things. Only the light-show comes extra.

In Monday's Prom, David Atherton presided over its live and taped elements. Children's voices ricocheted between loudspeakers high in the Albert Hall gallery like distant echoes of the first performance, strings and Hammond organ sugar-coated the churchy harmonies, and soprano Eileen Hulse soared to psychedelic F sharp above top C to be rewarded with a shower of pre-recorded kisses and heavy breathing. It was 'Je t'aime' all over again. Andy Warhol would have bottled it.

So much for the happening. The rest of this curious Anglo-Russian evening didn't. Atherton seemed uncharacteristically score-bound. In Stravinsky's Rite of Spring he was at great pains to point up the folkloric kinship with the likes of Mussorgsky and Lyadov, also featured. But the paganism was nowhere. No risk, no danger, no shock of the old, leave alone new. Tame. When a member of the audience can casually up and leave during the Danse Sacrale, then something is wrong. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales sounded circumspect, unmotivated.

Perhaps they were saving themselves for their incoming music director, Mark Wigglesworth. Certainly they were a very different orchestra the following night when they braved the Siege of Leningrad in Shostakovich's magnificent Seventh Symphony. There was purpose, there was vision here from the outset of that far-reaching string unison. Resonance and control. Wigglesworth's easy-to-read technique allows for amazing flexibility within the bar: woodwind phrases lengthened and strengthened in the opening tutti without pulling at the line.

He has the courage to trust in Shostakovich's astonishing breadth of gesture, to be implacable in the much-maligned first movement where development is repetition, and innocuous toe-tapping ditty (Stalin would have loved it) turns monstrous war-machine like something on the dark side of Ravel's Bolero. The dynamic range was frightening. Ear-stretching pianissimi concentrated the irony of the middle movements, the spectre of Mahler was all over the reprise of the scherzo, the bass clarinet a worm turning among warbling flutes. Beauty and the beast. If there has been a better performance of anything all season, I've not heard it.