BBC Proms

Prom 63: BBCSO/Robertson @ Royal Albert Hall, London

2 September 2009


Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: David Iliff)

This Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was made up of curiosities and contained the first, and hopefully the last, performance of Xenakis’ Nomos gamma at this prestigious summer music festival – a work so dreary in its monotonous cacophony that its fifteen minutes felt like an eternity.

On entering the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday it became apparent that this concert was going to be different to all the others this year. Why? Because the members of the BBCSO were positioned in sections not on the stage but within the promming area, with the prommers hemmed in between them and cordoned off with red rope – making them look as though they were queuing to get into Whisky Mist. No doubt many of them wished they were as the performance of Nomos gamma which kicked-off this concert was noisy, brash and monumentally dull. OK, there was the occasional flash of inspiration and the positioning of the players accorded some aural excitement now and again but the string clusters, aggressive drumming and raspy brass explosions failed, for me at least, to gel into any semblance of musical coherence.

Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead provided some welcome light relief – not a turn of phrase I’d ever thought I’d use when describing Rachmaninov whose music is hardly infused with Mediterranean warmth and sunshine – but after the Xenakis it was good to hear such a riveting performance of this spooky tone poem, and the playing of the BBCSO was exemplary under conductor David Robertson.

After the interval Leigh Melrose was the poor put-upon soloist in Xenakis’ Ais – a wild screechy setting of some Homer and Sappho that can’t have done the poor man’s vocal cords any good at all. Part parrot-noise, part Sprechstimme, part gobbledegook with a bit of monkey-gibbering thrown in for good measure this was as tortuous as Nomos gamma. Never again, but at least I’ve given Xenakis a go!

The concert ended with a well-drilled performance of Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony but given its slender form was something of an anti-climax after hearing the Royal Concertgebouw play the mighty 10th the night before.


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