It is an enduring pity that there is nothing in music to equal the great legacy of the first world war poets. Composers of that time tell us next to nothing about life in the trenches through their music and it has been left to subsequent generations to enrich the musical memorials to the war.
The centenary of the end of the war is the most prominent theme running through this year’s BBC Proms. It has been interpreted in a fairly loose fashion, but the two Proms on Saturday both nodded in that direction, and the London Sinfonietta’s afternoon concert at the Roundhouse featured four specially commissioned new works.
Surrounded by a clutch of modern classics, they each addressed the first world war in a different way. Georg Friedrich Haas’s the last minutes of inhumanity sets a scathing text by Karl Kraus in a mist of far-off memories. Hannah Kendall’s purely instrumental Verdala recalls the tragedy of an ill-fated troop ship from Jamaica in music of bright woodwind detail. Isabel Mundry’s Gefallen clothes a poem by August Stramm in an off-the-shelf contemporary style and Luca Francesconi’s We Wept reimagines a nurse’s feelings of desolation with anger and frustration.
At a little over five minutes each, none was a major statement, though the Haas, and to a lesser extent the Kendall, skilfully established a distinct tone and atmosphere. All were overshadowed by Stravinsky and Messiaen, two masters whose Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum were played with glinting precision by the London Sinfonietta under George Benjamin. Susan Bickley was the eloquent mezzo soloist.
The evening concert looked more generally to the theme of humanity in the face of adversity, appropriately for the annual visit of the World Orchestra for Peace, which brings together musicians from many world orchestras. The short, choral Shadow by Ēriks Ešenvalds and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, not a specifically first world war piece, set the tone. Then Donald Runnicles conducted a splendidly authoritative performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 that always knew where it was going, whatever the inevitable untidinesses of ensemble from a group of players who are not used to working together. Erin Wall, Judit Kutasi, Russell Thomas and Franz-Josef Selig were the adequate soloists. The BBC Proms Youth Choir was much more, a truly inspirational chorus that lifted the spirits, just as this concert demanded.
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