Thomas Adés conducts the Britten Sinfonia at the BBC Proms
Thomas Adés conducts the Britten Sinfonia at the BBC Proms

There is more to the BBC Proms’ tribute to Shakespeare in his 400th anniversary year than the familiar, heavyweight 19th-century concert works by Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. The lunchtime concerts at Cadogan Hall are investigating rarer Shakespearean music on a smaller scale — old and new.

Monday’s programme by choral group Stile Antico and viol consort Fretwork offered both. Robert Johnson was a composer for the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, and his setting of “Full fathom five” from The Tempest was sung with exceptional purity by Stile Antico, 16 singers at maximum for this concert. Fretwork interspersed the choral numbers with some of the typically rich English viol pieces of the period by Byrd and Gibbons. The novelties came with two new works, Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep, a thoughtful setting of Henry IV’s meditation; and the longish poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, an unlikely choice but skilfully set by Huw Watkins. After nipping through the early verses, his music hits a memorably haunting vein of edgy, mournful harmonies at the close.

The Britten Sinfonia’s evening Prom at the Royal Albert Hall also wrapped new works inside a classical package. Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures from 2014 are like images of Spain seen through an insect’s eye. Traditional Spanish elements such as tango and flamenco become flickers of light, colour and rhythm — an interesting idea, though by definition insubstantial. Augustin Hadelich, solo violin, and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Thomas Adès, seemed to keep a keen grip on its fleeting detail.

Adès’s own Lieux retrouvés, here getting its first UK performance in a new version for cello and orchestra, reaches further into a world of pinpoint detail. Here are half-forgotten places, faint impressions. Its hazy vision of open fields is a simple figure on the cello that winds softly higher and higher until it disappears into the ether. Steven Isserlis was delicacy itself in the cello part and Adès achieved pointillist precision from the Britten Sinfonia’s players.

On either side, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 belonged to a different world — detailed, certainly, very fast at times, but with their feet always on the ground.

bbc.co.uk/proms

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