Only at the Proms could you hear two stalwarts of the 20th-century English school alongside a new concerto by an Indian classical sitar player. To be fair the work, by Holst was entitled Indra and has its roots in the composers study of Indian Sanskrit, which led to a number of works based on Hindu myths – culminating in his beautiful opera Savitri.

Nishat Khan performs with David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Nishat Khan performs with David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Indra comes from 1903, right at the beginning of Holst’s “Indian” period. Performances of it have been very rare indeed and for good reason. It certainly has very little of the familiar Holstian magic. Apart from a pert trumpet theme, most of the work sounded too much like Wagner or Richard Strauss – a million miles away from India and a lot nearer to Valhalla. It is also rather poorly constructed, feeling like a series of short-winded passages strung together, reminding me of one of Holst’s weaknesses as a composer – his struggle to create and sustain larger structures (The Planets aside). However, David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales certainly gave it their all, revelling in the lush orchestration.

Next up was the first performance of Nishat Khan’s The Gate Of The Moon (Sitar Concerto no. 1). This proved to an interesting hybrid of styles and influences, miraculously held together into a strangely satisfying whole. Confidently written for a large orchestra, there were echoes of Philip Glass and John Adams in the opening passage. In three movements, It ruminates on a succession of themes and moods, building to a number of climaxes that were not resolved until the exciting final bars.

The wonderful sound of the sitar was well integrated with the orchestral sound, often seeming to respond to themes which germinated in the orchestra, decorating them with a filigree sound. Other classical influences found their way into the mix, most notably Joaquín Rodrigo, whose guitar concertante works, with their expert handling of unequal partners, must have given the composer some useful technical pointers. Moments of sweeter Bollywood-style melody, representing the feminine “Princess” character, were introduced and then disappeared into the flow. The harmonic language was mostly fairly simple and diatonic, with interesting twists arising out of the unfamiliar scales of the ragas.

Nishat Khan himself and the orchestra gave an exemplary account of the concerto. The charismatic presence of Khan on his podium dominated the whole performance and his interactions with the orchestra were fascinating, genuinely touching and exciting by turns.

My only concern about the piece itself was that it did seem to drag at times, struggling to sustain its 40-minute length. Western concert music has always relied on clear structural signposting and well-defined shapes, whereas Indian classical music is more concerned with improvisation within the extended timescales of the raga. The piece seemed to sit somewhere between these two worlds with a feeling of compromise that weakened it. One felt that either a tighter, Western style 25-minute piece or an all-night vigil could have worked better. Despite this misgiving, hearing the piece for the first time was an enjoyable experience which has grown on repeated hearings online.

None of these structural concerns could be held against Vaughan Williams, whose London Symphony ended the concert. His ability to shape larger scale works into an emotionally satisfying whole is one of his great strengths as a composer and is surely the reason he is recognised as the greatest symphonist to come from these shores and one of the 20th century’s greats. The London Symphony, with its depiction of the city in the last years before the First World War, manages – magically – to successfully juggle a huge range of musical and emotional elements.

Atherton and his orchestra found a wonderful hushed intensity at the opening, exploding into glaring life in the main Allegro. This movement, with its twists and turns of the picturesque, the glamorous and the tragic, was capped brilliantly by a bubbling coda. The romantic slow movements surging climax was prepared expertly and passionately delivered. The nocturnal perkiness of the Scherzo was not rushed and the mysterious coda led the way to the tragic opening cry of the finale, as it should. This movement needs to move inexorably to towards its searingly painful climax and then melt away into the murky unknown region all in one breath – all expertly managed by Atherton and BBC NOW. This was a splendid, much-appreciated performance of a deservedly much-loved work.

****1