In the current economic climate it probably does no good to observe that the BBC follows in a line of gilded aristocrats, omnipotent Popes and half-crazed princes as a patron of the arts. Of course, other organisations and individuals sponsor new music these days, but none has a showcase to display good deeds like the BBC Proms.
There are 11 new works this season commissioned solely or jointly by the BBC. The most recent was Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Monday, a joint commission with RTE. This was an odd piece and not very satisfying. The musical landscape is mostly empty with sudden splashes of activity that must be very hard to get together. Sometimes piano and orchestra combine to unleash split-second explosions of sound, like a flash of lighting followed by thunder. At other times the pianist plays sparkling notes of rhythmic complexity, like raindrops falling in semi-random patterns.
The problem was that the concerto is all stop-go and its ideas rarely add up to much. Barry Douglas, the conscientious soloist, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard did what they could with it. The rest of the concert focused on the season’s favoured composers, Wagner, Liszt and Brahms, in characterful but not especially well played performances.
The Prom the night before brought another major premiere (though not a BBC commission). This was Colin Matthews’s No Man’s Land, set to a text by Christopher Reid, in which we encounter two dead soldiers in the trenches of the first world war. A feeling of remembrance is everywhere in this piece, not least because it so strongly recalls Britten’s War Requiem with its two soldiers walking “friendly up to Death”. There are echoes of Berg and Mahler, too, as Matthews brings in a honky-tonk piano and parodies of popular songs.
Everything works in this collage of wartime sounds and yet No Man’s Land never quite pins down what it wants to say. What do these soldiers really want to tell us? Tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Roderick Williams made the most of Matthews’s graceful vocal writing and the City of London Sinfonia under Stephen Layton relished the atmospheric accompaniment. Afterwards their performance of Mozart’s Requiem was notable for the outstanding singing of the vocal group Polyphony.