If you are the someone who does not judder at the word ‘ambient’, then Tuesday’s Late-night Prom would have been for you. Replicating Radio 3’s In Tune Mixtape programmes, it aimed to explore “… the fringes of Minimalism and meditative listening”. It has to be said, though, that what works as an informal relaxing experience at home – either via radio, or a friend’s playlist – doesn’t transfer well to the Albert Hall. Certainly, the Prom achieved its ‘wind-down’ aim in delivering more somnolence than a hipster’s mug of valerian-infused soy-milk Horlicks, but that number of ‘chill-out’ pieces strung together for concentrated concert-hall listening left one wanting to do something very loud and violent afterwards.
All of the individual works were well performed, though not all of them pulled their weight (and a shorter, less tedious, concert might have resulted from their omission). Ola Gjeilo’s The Spheres and the two contributions from Max Richter (Vladimir’s Blues and On the Nature of Daylight) can probably be rapidly dismissed. There is minimalism and there is stringing a few predictable chords together and making them sound profound by dint of a bit of chordal overlap, and an excellent performance in an impressive space. Gjeilo’s choral work is almost indistinguishable from many similar by his post-minimalist choral-cluster-chord contemporaries, and the two Richter works were exercises in putting one harmonic foot slowly in front of the other. Pēteris Vasks’ The Fruits of Silence was only slightly more interesting – a homophonic choral ‘hymn’ accompanied by a piano countermelody.
Arvo Pärt’s Fratres was a landmark work back in 1977, when it challenged the orthodoxy of 20th-century modernism with its calm minimalist euphony. It was given a first-rate performance, the forces deployed (12 Ensemble opted for a version for solo violin, string orchestra and percussion) allowing for timbral contrasts across the piece’s lengthy swell and decay. But lengthy it is, and these days, Pärt’s tintinnabuli wear thin after a few repetitions.
The vocal ensemble Tenebrae under their director Nigel Short were their usual slick selves, and produced a beautifully blended and tightly controlled sound for their solo items. Ēriks Ešenvalds’ ethereal Stars sets a soprano melody against scrunchy choral underpinning and a drone from a choir-played glass harmonica to great effect. All the techniques of dynamic-following-shape needed for singing Renaissance polyphony were brought to bear for Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum, and John Tavener’s The Lamb (an odd choice, as it’s normally a Christmas piece) was precise in its tuning and delivery.
Martin James Bartlett gave a sensitive account of Chopin’s D-flat Nocturne, the notes in the right hand dripping gently into the rocking sea of harmony sustained in the left. The central movement of Bach’s F-minor keyboard concerto worked well on a piano, and the communication between Bartlett and 12 Ensemble delivered an impressive result.
No absolution, however, is offered for the rearrangement of the first movement of Schubert’s D-minor string quartet (Death and the Maiden) for string orchestra. Certainly, 12 Ensemble gave it a nuanced and well synchronised performance, but all of the communication, urgency and textural variation across four instruments that flows from the original were lost in a wash of Mantovani’s singing strings.
It was left to the sarod-player and composer Soumik Datta and percussionist Cormac Byrne to provide surcease in two stimulating East-West fusion pieces by Datta. Both were rhythmically interesting – starting slowly and quietly and increasing in dynamic and tempo – and scored for sarod with backing from the other performers. The melody-driven Clouds (with some impressively realised Indian ‘flicked notes’ by Tenebrae) contrasted well with the more drone-based, textured Morning Song, for which they were joined by 12 Ensemble.