classical music; live reviews; Fathoming the depths

Prom premieres: Judith Bingham and Sally Beamish Gabrieli Brass Ensemble, BBC Symphony Chorus; London Mozart Players Nicholas Williams
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Though seascapes and syncopation are an unlikely artistic pairing, they've become a familiar part of the British nautical obsession. First there were the ragtime hornpipes of Walton's Portsmouth Point overture. Now Judith Bingham, in her centenary Prom commission, the cantata Salt in the Blood, has continued the association with a score that's full of jazzy riffs, off-beat chords, and dancing shanties.

Writing her own text on an all-male subject of life before the mast, she's kept things short and sweet in a concisely dramatic five-movement design with some excellent tone painting of the sea in its many moods. In Tuesday's late-night premiere by the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble and the BBC Symphony Chorus, making their Proms solo debut directed by Stephen Jackson, transitions between sections were skilfully handled; the writing for brass sounded exemplary.

Female voices set the weather scenes: breezes, fog, storm or gale. Male voices took the leading roles, with carousing 'tween decks (concertina- like wheezings included) as prelude to the feud of Daniel and Billy in this ominous tale of a sailor whose ghost takes to living in the rigging.

The evening also featured polychoral motets and canzonas by Gabrieli himself. And to a discreet background of bells and pedal notes from the Albert Hall organ, the chorus sang Ives's sombre setting of Psalm 90. Nothing whatever to do with British sea music here, surely; but a fascinating contrast, none the less.

Wednesday's Prom featured the London Mozart Players in works by their namesake, stylishly phrased by conductor Matthias Bamert, and the premiere of Sally Beamish's Viola Concerto. Like Hindemith, she's a viola virtuoso- turned-composer; and there were echoes of Hindemith's dry modernism in the concluding fast music of the work. Earlier, a flurry of bright, clipped woodwind cries had recalled the style of another viola-playing composer, Britten, whose Les Illuminations was heard after the interval, in a fine reading by Joan Rodgers.

But if Beamish's own voice sounded fragile and hidden, this was all to the point in a concerto inspired by the Passion story and taking its cue from the scene of Peter's denial. Round a graphic motif of sharply etched chords depicting Pilate's striking of Christ, she built a simple scheme of alternating cadenzas and episodes. And clothed in her deft scoring, the musical substance gave soloist Philip Dukes plenty of technical challenge, without the headache of instrumental imbalance.

Schnittke, as it happens, follows the same Passion pattern in his Second Violin Concerto, and with much the same point: external tension of anticipation and arrival is added to the purely musical force of cohesion. In the Beamish, those chords were worth waiting for both theatrically and as the climax of the abstract form. Dialogues with clarinet and horn stood for Peter's denials, if you wished to believe it. At the end, solo viola edged ever higher into ethereal realms; symbolic perhaps, but no less a detail of purely musical poetry.

n Tonight's Proms: CBSO/Rattle (Mendelssohn, Henze, Beethoven) 7pm; Music of the Far East 10pm. Booking: 0171-589 8212

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