Classical review: Naresh Sohal's 'Cosmic Dance' has more ambition than achievement in Prom 27, but Lugansky dazzles

Prom 27 – Lugansky, RSNO, Oundjian (***) / Prom 28 – Repin, RSNO, Runnicles (**)

Michael Church
Monday 05 August 2013 10:36
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New works commissioned by the Proms tend to be short effusions nervously parading their modernist credentials, so the sheer boldness of Naresh Sohal’s 45-minute The Cosmic Dance was refreshing.

This 74-year-old Punjab-born composer tells us it germinated in his childhood as he lay on his rooftop gazing at the stars. Its composition was triggered by a combination of the first words of the Rig Veda – strikingly similar to those of the Book of Genesis – and the cosmological ideas he absorbed at university.

The work follows a literary programme – from Big Bang to Milky Way, Sun, Moon, and Earth – and since Sohal’s intention in the first scene mirrors that of Haydn in his Creation, listeners will inevitably draw comparisons - though not to Sohal’s advantage. We quickly get accustomed to his favourite effects – flutes versus low brass, pianissimo high strings versus thumping percussion – and there are moments when the stomping rhythms recall those of Ravel’s “Bolero”. But the excitement feels manufactured rather than visceral, and, until the closing cello-violin duet, beauty of any kind is in short supply. This quintessentially Western work could have been written at any time over the past 60 years, and it’s likely to go down in history as a curiosity, not a classic.

Nikolai Lugansky’s performance of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor” came as sweet relief. Since his emergence as a young tiger on the international circuit twenty years ago, this Russian pianist’s artistry has mellowed, but he remains one of the last true representatives of Soviet pianism’s golden age. In his hands, sensitively abetted by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of Peter Oundjian (here making his Proms debut) Rach Three came over with its lyrical tenderness gloriously intact; by restraining its theatricality and avoiding the temptation to cheesiness, Lugansky gave it a memorable nobility.

The main event of Prom 28 was James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto with its dedicatee, the Russian violinist Vadim Repin, as soloist. The opening movement of this uneven work requires great virtuosity, but pays little dividends in return: its sound-world is sludgy, and the solo part – full of stratospheric double-stoppings – never gets anywhere despite its apparent urgency. The folk-influenced slow movement has undeniable charm, which the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles’ expert direction did much to enhance. But I suspect it was less the work itself than Repin’s extraordinary artistry which brought the audience to its feet at the end.

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