This was the most incredible Proms concert I’ve experienced. The programming was inspired, the performances were stellar and there was a little bit of controversy to boot. Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica begins with low, ominous sweeping – very subtle brass underpinning the orchestra, indicating that we’re in for an eerie night.
Not knowing this work at all, the soprano soloist and choir came as a total shock to me. The ghostly choir was accompanied by a wind machine, which was surprisingly effective the first time round but by the third instalment was a little cheap-sounding. This sort of piece seems to work very well on just a single hearing, descriptive and atmospheric as it is. After the choir has haunted the orchestra, Martyn Brabbins cast ice over the hall with perilous, sinister music trickling out from muted xylophones and harps, like an iceberg drifting darkly in the night. A colossal gong is struck which acted like a false ending before the organ kicked in. It was much too loud, and so couldn’t have been better. The (faintly comic by now) wind machine rounded up the work with a chill.
Xenakis contributed the next incredible wall of sound. The percussion for Pleiades took up a third of the floor space in front of the orchestra, leaving the Prommers crammed into the remaining space. Six young percussionists delivered almost relentless, disjointed, gorgeous and harassing noise on custom-made metal slabs. The audience (most must have come for The Planets) was clearly rattled, twitching, whispering and leaving in clusters throughout the performance. This brilliant racket continually poured into your ears, synchronising only to immediately de-synchronise.
This sort of complexity can be heard as either highly sophisticated or totally primitive (and is probably both) but it’s not to everyone’s taste. One man decided to voice his opinion with two very loud boos, but this only bolstered the Xenakis supporters. Enormous applause burst out at the end of every movement in direct opposition to that dim-witted gent, and at the end of the piece the performers 4-Mality and O Duo received standing ovations in pockets of the hall.
Each section was presented with a different shade of lighting, bottle green, followed by pink with orange and finally red. The materials being struck changed from metal to wood, to skins – producing incredibly beautiful textures in a clotted tangle of rhythms. One modified vibraphone seems to be changing pitch as it is struck, sometimes the whole ensemble sounds as if it were having its pitches electronically modified. The music continued to be amazing, but always in very unusual, uncompromising ways.
Holst’s Planets rounded off the evening in electrifying style. Any aroma of cheese evaporated with Martyn Brabbins’ sheer conviction, making this all-too-familiar music seem fresh, and another invisible choir was utterly sensational.