Contrary to how it may seem, this year’s BBC Proms are not all Wagner. Space has been made for other composers who have anniversaries in 2013, even if not on the same Wagnerian scale, and Benjamin Britten’s centenary is being marked as much through his smaller pieces as his full-scale works.
This is where the lunchtime chamber music Proms, initiated in 1996, score. Comfortably housed in Cadogan Hall, they can accommodate anything from solo music to small orchestras, and this programme brought together a handful of Britten’s less familiar chamber works, framed by two of his now frequently heard Canticles.
The gem of this recital was the Songs from the Chinese. Originally intended for tenor Peter Pears and guitarist Julian Bream, they number six slender fragments of Chinoiserie, each barely grasped before it evaporates. James Gilchrist was the verbally vivid singer and Christoph Denoth made the delicate guitar accompaniments sound gossamer-light.
In her Britten cycle, A Charm of Lullabies, the mezzo Ruby Hughes found a complementary tenderness. But the two singers were not well matched in Abraham and Isaac, the second Canticle, and it was left to pianist Imogen Cooper to focus attention on the work’s concentrated, miniature drama.
Another important area of activity is providing a showcase for contemporary British composers: a performance at the Proms is worth half-a-dozen anywhere else. Among this year’s line-up is Colin Matthews’s Turning Point, given its premiere abroad in 2007, but not heard in the UK until this performance at the Royal Albert Hall. A 20-minute orchestral piece, it bursts into life with a seething mass of notes in the woodwind, which spread through the orchestra, as if passing down through multiple layers of activity. When the “turning point” comes, it leads to slower music, but if anything the intensity increases. Awash with energy and ideas, the piece scored a palpable hit.
Having set the tone, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under its principal conductor, Thomas Søndergård, provided a glittering accompaniment to the expressive soloist, Daniel Hope, in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 and attacked Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, “The Year 1905”, with revolutionary ardour. This symphony, though, is in danger of over-exposure: repeated hearings over the past few years are revealing just how thin its music is.