This years Proms Saturday matinee concerts, with their emphasis on 20th-century works and featuring several BBC commissions and world and UK premieres, have been for me one of the biggest successes of this years Proms season. Seemingly an arena in which edgier and more challenging works have been aired, in contrast to the more conservative Royal Albert Hall, I only wish these weekend concerts were better attended.
Sir John Taveners pseudo-cello concerto Popule meus, here given its first UK performance, takes its title from the Holy Week lament My people, what have I done to thee? How have I troubled you? giving an early clue that this was to be no virtuosic showpiece for the soloist, Natalie Clein. Drawing also on Taveners immersion in Hindu spirituality, while also being heavily imbued with the composers deep Orthodox Christian faith, the solo cello line (supported by a small string orchestra) is an all-compassionate deity, serene in the face of a brutal and scornful humanity as represented by the timpani.
The sound-world of Popule meus is familiar from Taveners other defining work involving solo cello, The Protecting Veil, and the two pieces share many qualities. However, what appeals most about Popule meus is the sensitive quality of the solo line, which sounded as if it could have come straight from one of the composers haunting choral works, and which could not have been more movingly performed than by Clein. Warmly supported by the Britten Sinfonia under the baton of David Hill, Popule meus and its composer (who was present in the hall) fully deserved the audiences rapturous applause.
Clein returned to finish the concert with Sofia Gubaidulinas setting of St Francis of Assisis poem Canticle of the Sun, which as well as incorporating a choir (here the excellent BBC Singers) to sing the Umbrian-Italian text, also requires the soloist to play several extra percussion instruments. Gubaidulinas ever growing reputation in this country will have been done no harm at all by this effusive yet subtle performance, and the work itself is, if less simple to grasp as a listener, all the more rewarding for concentrated attention on its dazzling use of texture to illustrate the text.
Earlier, the Britten Sinfonia had flexed their mettle in Michael Tippetts Little Music for Strings, a smaller-scale companion to the more well-known Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the surging rhythms and antiquated harmonies of which found many resonances in two of the composers early choral works, Plebs angelica and The Windhover, which were given expert, if slightly cool, performances by the BBC Singers.