This years Proms Saturday Matinee concerts have as their theme contemporary music, with two world premieres and two UK premieres taking place across the four concerts. Todays concert had one of each, as well as a Proms premiere, and there seemed to be a special frisson of excitement hanging in the air above an especially chirpy Cadogan Hall audience.
Nicolas Hodges is a pianist of exceptional ability who has made a name for himself as a deliverer and crafter of avant-garde works, many of which have been written with his playing in mind. To him fell the first performance of Georges Aperghis BBC-commissioned piano concerto, Champ-Contrechamp. As Radio 3 presenter Christopher Cook explained, the title is a French term in filmography meaning shot-reverse shot, the technique by which two people filmed separately can be made to look as if they are conversing with one another by carefully changing from one to the other; this feigned dialogue was the key to the whole work.
On the surface, there seemed little out of the ordinary: Hodges appeared to lead the way, with the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton providing close, subtle accompaniment and occasionally interjecting to introduce a new idea. However, it soon became apparent that the relationship between Hodges and the orchestra really was more like a skittish, frantically-paced conversation, as a theme on one side would be taken up only briefly by the other interlocutor before being abruptly abandoned. For all the complexity of the parts, Aperghis so skilfully weaves them all together that the overriding effect is of great shimmering layers of colour that sweep across the orchestra and the audience, made up of pointillist pin-pricks of music. I have a feeling that work will repay repeated listening catch it on the BBC iPlayer during the next week.
The concert had begun with Il rozzo martello (The Crude Hammer), an a cappella work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies setting Italian texts by Dante and Michelangelo, on the subject of artistic inspiration. The BBC Singers gave a faultless display of quality ensemble singing, although I found the piece itself rather bland and stilted, the very natural word-setting aside.
The BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta joined forces for the final work, the first UK performance of Sir Harrison Birtwistles Angel Fighter, a dramatic cantata telling in a modern libretto by Stephen Plaice the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Birtwistle shows Jacob sung by tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as a troubled, tormented man who is harangued by his tribe for leading them aimlessly in the desert, before he encounters a mysterious figure here, counter-tenor Andrew Watts who challenges him to a fight.
Speaking on stage beforehand, Birtwistle stated that the origin of Angel Fighter in the 2010 Leipzig Bach Festival had led him to derive some of the works dramatic impetus from Bachs works; however, what I was most reminded of was Benjamin Brittens Cantata misericordium, heard at the Proms last week, which is another work that sets a dramatic Biblical story in a deliberately antiquated and mythical light. The role of the chorus as commentators and antagonists both drove the action on and slowed time down, and their use of percussion to increase the aggression of their goading of Jacob was a great effect.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang the role of Jacob in the world premiere of Angel Fighter, and was faultless in what is a vocally taxing part. Andrew Watts as the Angel found just the right balance between divine grandeur and hauteur, provoking a fight he thought he could not lose and indeed, both soloists looked the part, physically dominating and icily staring each other down. In the end, after Jacobs hard-fought defeat and his securing of the angelic blessing, all three parties break into a Hebrew blessing of the Almighty, and the whole scene seems to dissolve into thin air like a dream.
Angel Fighter is yet another resounding success for Birtwistle, and shows that he is undoubtedly one of the leading composers of dramatic music writing today. The Minotaur was only premiered three years ago, and that already seems like a decade please send more operas our way, Sir Harrison!