BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

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Given the Proms’ increasingly populist stance, the disappearance of modernism from the main series has long seemed inevitable. It now occupies a late-evening ghetto, where dinosaur-composers hold sway in gloomy isolation.

Listening to last week’s pairing of Boulez and Birtwistle, I can’t summon much regret. I’d love to think of Boulez’s Dérive 2 and Birtwistle’s Neruda Madrigals as music of the future, but the truth is they represent an era that was more “popular” (if that term could ever be applied to modernism) 20 years ago than it is now. The emperors are fast losing their clothes.

But we somehow feel duty-bound to bow and scrape to Boulez, even though he has now stretched the original Dérive material to an interminable 40 minutes. In a performance as alert, focused and quasi-conversational as that given by 11 members of the London Sinfonietta under Susanna Mälkki, there are compensations – but not enough to relieve the boredom of listening to this slurry of instrumental shapes and sequences, winding its way along a chute of musical indeterminacy.

I hope it’s not mere chauvinism to say the Neruda Madrigals, here receiving its London premiere, left a much stronger impression. That’s partly because Birtwistle’s setting of a Pablo Neruda poem – a pungent ode to the sea, whose texture it variously compares to “violent gardens”, “the coupling and thrust of desire” and a “war of mobility” – seems made for the cavernous space of the Albert Hall, but also because it connects with the past, and thereby makes more of an effort to involve the listener.

Scored for small choir, flutes, clarinets, harp, percussion and cimbalom, the latter adding a wonderfully tangy taste to the sound, the “madrigals” are introduced as an archaic ritual incantation, dark, meditative and pure, before adopting “traditional” modernist abrasions, the choral murmurings finding a seductive counterpoint in the instrumental music.

Birtwistle appears to have been attracted as much by Neruda’s short lines as his imagery – the words are inaudible – but paradoxically it’s his ability to create a long theatrical undertow, leading to a tense climax, that carries the piece. The BBC Singers and Mälkki, making her overdue Proms debut, did him proud.

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