Birtwistle and the Prommers have enjoyed a relationship that could best be described as tetchy.
The infamous occasion of the Last Night Panic premiere remains as something of a legacy for the departed Proms head Sir John Drummond, and hovers like a spectre whenever subsequent works are unveiled.
Fortunately for those of a Last Night disposition, the latest premiere was safely stowed away as part of a late night London Sinfonietta prom.
The ensemble have delivered several late night gems over the last few years, with MusicOMH attending revelatory interpretations of big works from the 1970s- Henze’s Voices and Berio’s Coro. This pair, the expanded Dérive 2 of Pierre Boulez and the Birtwistle Neruda Madrigales – made a substantial and typically challenging whole, and reaffirmed the belief that it is surely time the ensemble were allotted the peak time Prom they so clearly merit.
Neruda Madrigales is a striking work, given by its dedicatees and conducted with absolute authority by Susanna Mälkki, who gave firm evidence of why she is courted by the Berlin Philharmonic for guest appearances. The BBC Singers were taxed to their limits in a tense interpretation of the text, from the depths of the lower register to some extremely lofty soprano writing, delivered with impressive sensitivity by Elizabeth Poole.
The instrumentation required some ominous looking implements that were dragged onto the stage after the Boulez. David Hockings wielded the most frightening of all, his vividly evoking the blow of an axe. The four flutes made an impact too, with a rare outing for the bass flute in Birtwistle’s inventive orchestration. In summary, with their composer never one to shirk from a forthright musical style, the Madrigals were impressively formed.
In more recent years Pierre Boulez has taken to revising earlier works, and in the case of Dérive 2 that has led to a considerable augmentation of the original. Again, Mälkki was fully on top of the direction of a piece that alternately enchanted and energised, barely pausing between statements on its 40-minute journey.
Boulez’s use of percussion was a prominent feature, filling out the parts on vibraphone and marimba so that it was difficult to discern the presence of eleven parts. Textures were busy, which made the brief pauses and stresses on particular pitches take on extra importance, and these were appropriately signposted by Mälkki.
Boulez would have relished the precision she brought to the interpretation, while an imperious cello solo from Timothy Gill stood out three quarters of the way through. It’s always difficult to appraise a piece as substantial as Dérive 2 on first hearing, but the choice it offered the listener in extracting detail or stepping back to admire the whole was a double positive.