Fifty years ago contemporary music tended to conform to a narrow range of expectations. Now anything goes. The premieres at this year’s BBC Proms have embraced the forward-looking, the backward-looking, and the naval-gazing.
The penultimate premiere of the season, B Tommy Andersson’s Pan for organ and large orchestra, a BBC commission, belonged firmly in category two. Here was an unashamedly lush orchestral showpiece that kept Ravel and his “choreographic poem” La valse in the rear-view mirror. Even the French master of orchestration rarely indulged effects so lavish and he never threw in a big supporting role for organ. Andersson’s programme note talked of being inspired by ancient statues of the god Pan. What we heard sounded more like Daphnis and Chloe waltzing feverishly round a deserted cathedral to the accompaniment of a crazed organist. Extravagant and huge, it filled the Royal Albert Hall entertainingly enough for 20 minutes.
The concert had opened with more anniversary Nielsen and closed with Mahler. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its principal conductor Thomas Søndergård offered excerpts from Nielsen’s colourful incidental music to Aladdin, a score full of ideas that should be easy to remember, but which vanish from one’s mind like the genie out of the lamp. In Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, with Klara Ek as soprano, the performers were light of touch, fine of detail — an appealing performance.
The late night all-Handel Prom afterwards aimed to cross all kinds of borders, musical, psychological and sexual. Alice Coote, often cast in the male castrato roles of Handel’s operas, set out to ask the question, “Who are you?”. Flashing “x” and “y” chromosomes on the back screen suggested the answer would not come easily. While the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket provided grounded support, Coote ranged about the stage on a voyage of exploration. Her arias were for male and female characters, sopranos and mezzos; the singing was fearless, often exaggerated, sometimes very moving. She sang “He was despised” from Messiah shaving in a bath. During “Dopo notte” from Ariodante she mimed flying like an aeroplane on a plinth. Did anybody have a clue what it all meant? One for the naval-gazing category, I think.