Not for Josep Pons is the neat, crystalline programming of Oliver Knussen or similar: this sprawling Proms debut by the Catalan conductor encompassed a perplexing variety of music, never really looking like it would form much of a coherent whole. But that didn’t matter on account of the spirited readings each of the pieces received from Pons, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, and – for the Brahms concerto that was the concert’s highlight – violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann.

Frank Peter Zimmermann © Klaus Rudolph
Frank Peter Zimmermann
© Klaus Rudolph

Nestled in amongst various works by Stravinsky and a world première from German composer Charlotte Seither, the Brahms concerto stood out on paper for being so conventional, but it stood out in the concert simply because of the quality of its performance. Zimmermann brought a chamber-like air to this notoriously unsoloistic concerto, wandering around the front desk of orchestral violins rather than standing firm in front of them, and exchanging phrases with the sort of conversational air more readily expected from a sonata or string quartet. People say this concerto is actually a symphony in disguise – but maybe it’s more of an expanded chamber piece, as for all its heady fortissimo bluster it has an intimate side to it, which was delicately extracted tonight by Zimmermann and the orchestra.

The second movement boasted spotless woodwind intonation and an enjoyable, indulgently-phrased oboe solo from Richard Simpson, though perhaps inevitably it was the first movement which drew the best from Zimmermann. This may not be the showiest of concertos, but it’s certainly hard enough, with rapid, flighty passages and double- and triple-stopped chords galore. All was dispatched with ease, clarity, and a lack of ostentation that Brahms would have revelled in. The finale never really recovered from its opening, rushed into unnecessarily in a futile attempt to prevent inter-movement applause – but the clear, genial tone remained present. This was a model concerto performance and for me a Proms highlight. Zimmermann’s encore, the Prelude from Bach’s E major Partita, confirmed the delightful ease with which Zimmermann can play.

After the interval, the orchestra were joined by the BBC Singers for a piece which showed a different side of German music. Charlotte Seither’s Proms commission The Language of Leaving was lighter in effect than its dense programme note suggested, and made use of many amusing percussion instruments and brass effects. Right from its opening cacophony of swanee whistles, there was an undercurrent of fun to this basically sombre piece. Although I’m still trying to unpick the real role of the BBC Singers – they were split into twelve pairs, apparently each corresponding to a different part of the orchestra, but they seemed underused in the extreme – the quality of the performance was never in doubt, and Seither made sure to create a texture with enough to it for a casual listener to be able to enjoy with ease. As with so many new orchestral pieces, The Language of Leaving merits many more live airings than it is likely to receive – unfortunately, it also needs these repeat performances if its value is to be properly assessed.

Also like so much new music, the concert as a whole was given through a Stravinskian lens, with an opening set of miniatures by the Russian and his 1911 ballet Petrushka (with its 1946 revisions) at the end. The first three novelties all fared very well, Pons proving the perfect baton-wielder for Scherzo à la Russe, a 1944 throwaway number originally intended for the Paul Whiteman Band, which specialised in light jazz. This atypically jaunty number casts a sideways glance back towards the fairground music of Petrushka – perhaps this concert programme was a touch more cunningly constructed than it initially seemed. The two Russian Orthodox motets that followed, on the other hand, were slightly jarring, though well sung by the BBC Singers and well prepared by chorusmaster Tim Murray, with a pious air not present in the rest of the pieces this evening.

Pons’ take on Petrushka didn’t have the revelatory clarity of the earlier Brahms, though it had a similarly neat, contrapuntal approach. A very measured opening, a touch slower than some, made this Petrushka less dramatically engaging than it can sometimes be, but it was a treat to hear all the parts as cleanly as this: as a concert performance with no ballet element, this was very effective, and it allowed Stravinsky’s strange musical tricks to come to the fore. Pons also showed himself a dab hand at musical humour, maximising the laughs from this oddly comic score. This may not have been a Petrushka for the ages, but it had plenty to commend it – not least some fine solos, including that of pianist Elizabeth Burley.

A smorgasbord of a Prom, then, but all served up with consummate style.