As a fan of contemporary music and, indeed, minimalism, I was disappointed to find the programme at Prom 50 underwhelming overall. This was not for lack of trying, however – I wanted to enjoy it. But after allowing the music time to sink in further and my thoughts to settle, my opinions only seemed to have become more resolute.

Ilan Volkov © Chris Christodoulou
Ilan Volkov
© Chris Christodoulou

The evening started promisingly. The first work of the night, John White’s Chord-Breaking Machine, was an engaging listen and, given the quantity of music that White has written (approximately 172 piano sonatas, 25 sonatas and 30 ballets) it was surprising that this was his Proms première. Written with a minimalist approach (‘systems music’, similar to Philip Glass) before the term itself had taken hold, White creates a shimmering texture within the main body of the orchestra as the various sections repeat small motifs that gradually phase in and out of sync with one another, progressing through gradually-changing harmonies punctuated by sustained brass chords. It was an enjoyable performance, too – there was an electricity exuded by the sound produced by the orchestra and Ilan Volkov was clearly in his element.

The second minimalist work of the evening, Gerald Barry’s No Other People (2009) was the work with which I had most difficulty. As Dónal Sarsfield wrote at its premiere, “the opening is distressing in its everydayness”. In his defence, however, this is possibly Barry’s intention, as he sought to reflect his impressions of Henri-Achille Zo’s illustrations that inspired the work. As he wrote in his programme notes, “I was very struck by the everydayness of Zo’s drawings”. There were some virtuosic scalic figurations (particularly apparent in the brass) that were clearly well-executed, and a tantalising sudden drop in dynamics which cleared the way for an energetic dance rhythm in the lower strings. Nevertheless, I was left with the feeling that something intangible was missing, that something wasn't happening. Though, if Barry’s intention was indeed to create such an impression, then he was successful.

The world première of Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Concerto was certainly the most theatrical performance of the evening. The first and second movements were emotionally erratic, reminding me of the Poulenc Sextet that I had heard earlier that day. Starting (and, later, ending) with an indistinct bass drum roll and low piano notes – some dampened and some plucked by Rzewski’s free hand – the opening was very atmospheric. Eerie ripples from the piano followed, passing through several mysterious-sounding harmonies. This, however, turned out to be a deceptive prologue to an ultimately lighthearted and humorous core, with great registral gymnastics in the piano part. A sudden change of mood, again, revealed a somewhat darker section.

The sparse third movement exhibited a kind of pointillist piano-writing against sustained notes from other solo instruments that swelled and retreated into and away from one another, overlapping one another’s notes. It seemed both controlled and well paced. The finale began with a sprightly and offbeat fugue, quickly abandoned for a piano cadenza (improvised?) after which the orchestra re-entered with a complex contrapuntal texture. The nonchalant and quiet ending was a delight (the potentials of quiet endings in concerti have yet to be fully explored, in my opinion); a deliberately out-of-place glissando from the principal violinist, Laura Samuel, bringing the movement to a close after the rest of the orchestra had finished.

Described as a “cross-section of a cloud”, Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light (1985) was the second work that I had trouble with, though I suspect that this ultimately had more to do with the resonant acoustics of the venue compromising the orchestral detail: the orchestra are required to play ppp throughout and, when listening to a CD recording of the work the following day, I found I was able to detect far more intricacies. Whilst it is not an immediate piece, it can become mesmerising: written in a way intended to suggest metric imprecision and an overall organic unfolding, the subtle changes and additions that arose thus gained greater significance. I would not fault the performance. It was very tenderly played and blended at the consistent dynamic level that the orchestra was constrained to. Furthermore, the timbral separation was certainly palpable at various times throughout the work.

Tonight’s concert had its moments, and plenty of them. The pieces were well-played. It simply didn't feel that the programme gotten off the ground before we had reached the halfway point. It seemed to me that – for all his good intentions – it was Barry’s No Other People that seemed to put a dampener on what was, for the most part, an interesting concert.

***11