With major new works by Thomas Adès and Philip Glass already under its belt, this year’s Proms season has been giving more than lip service to contemporary music. It is heartening to see more full-length works, when the tendency in the past has been to play safe with short pieces to be swallowed like a poison pill before some favourite symphony.
Few, though, are on the scale of Naresh Sohal’s The Cosmic Dance. A BBC commission, this takes as its theme nothing less than the creation of the universe and the heavenly bodies. Even Wagner, lodestar of this year’s Proms, never set his sights that high. Taking his inspiration from the ancient Hindu hymns of the Rig Veda, Sohal has fashioned an expansive picture of the universe, enlivened by the dance rhythms of the spheres. Many of the sounds he draws from his huge orchestra are highly seductive, but by the end of the 50 minutes his material was spread dangerously thin. Like the ever-expanding universe, it was hard to tell what was holding it all together.
The rest of this marathon, three-part Prom delivered the expected audience favourites. Nikolai Lugansky played with crystalline beauty as the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3. A brass-heavy performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under conductor Peter Oundjian tried to make up in punch what it lacked in refinement.
The Saturday afternoon Proms are offering a variety of chamber orchestras in the ideal setting of Cadogan Hall. British music is well to the fore and last weekend’s programme by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Sian Edwards, selected from the wealth of 20th-century English music composed for (mostly) strings.
This included the unchallenging bonhomie of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite and the richer, more individual sound-world of Tippett’s Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli. Sarah Connolly, mezzo soloist, did what she could with the stilted vocal writing in Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, sensitively accompanied by Edwards, and then raised the temperature with the intense, heated passion of Britten’s Phaedra. In Britten’s centenary year this late work has nailed its place as one of his final masterpieces.