PROMS BBC SO / David Robertson Royal Albert Hall, London

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Anyone who catches this afternoon's Radio 3 broadcast of Monday's Prom will sense fun and games all round - at least in the first half. For openers, David Robertson conducted the BBC Symphony in Haydn's "Hornsignal" Symphony, a veritable "concerto for classical orchestra" with four horns blaring a call to arms, nifty flute work, filigree writing for the lead violin and a sumptuous cello solo in the Adagio. All but the horns were taken by female principals or co-principals, flautist Lorna McGhee and cellist Susan Monks both proving exceptional. As to humour (a sure bet in Haydn), bassist Paul Marion provided plenty as he thrust his way through the Finale's last variation: you can hear the shuffles and giggles for yourself.

California-born Robertson is the current conductor of Ensemble InterContemporain and certainly knows how to marshal his forces. He bounded on to the rostrum and made ballet with his baton, invariably to good effect. Ensemble was slick (especially among the strings) and in the symphony's bold first statement, the four horns didn't crack as much as a single note between them - no mean feat in a work that's rich in exposed horn writing. All repeats were observed (a rather tedious ritual in the Finale) and the orchestra's keenness of attack was equally apparent in a superb performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in which prizewinning clarinettist Paul Meyer was the centre of attention. I have never heard a more bewitching account of the slow movement, with soft playing that dipped to an almost imperceptible pianissimo and a judicious use of vibrato. Meyer's agile phrasing and perky staccato brought an extra dash of vitality to the finale.

After Haydn and Mozart came the first complete Prom performance of Bartok's extravagantly scored Wooden Prince ballet. The story-line tells of an amorous prince, a petulant princess and the former's tortured efforts to attract the latter - ultimately with some success. It's a real wallow: page after page is steeped in post-Wagnerian chromaticism, leavened very occasionally with hints of the folk music that Bartok had recently rescued from the plains and potential oblivion. The snag, however, is that, whereas Bartok's other stage works, Bluebeard's Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin, are graphically descriptive and therefore perfect food for the mind's theatre, the score to The Wooden Prince could accompany virtually any love story you care to name. The performance itself was well paced and well meaning but rather approximate in detail. There were some nice clarinet solos, but full tutti - there are plenty of them, believe me - tended to congeal and the sum effect was overweight and ill-focused. Audience response was dutiful rather than ecstatic; the half-way mark saw numerous people sneaking to the nearest exit and the ultimate applause, although fairly appreciative, excluded the customary stamping and chanting. I'd suspect that the reason was more to do with Bartok than with Robertson. The concise Wooden Prince suite would have worked far better.

Concert repeated 2pm today on Radio 3

Robert Cowan

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