This year, the BBC Proms season marks centenaries such as the birth of Leonard Bernstein and the death of Claude Debussy, but it was something non-musical – the end of the First World War – which was commemorated on this all-British First Night. Plenty of composers served on both sides – Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth (killed on the Somme in 1916) – but the BBC opted for a young, contemporary voice for this anniversary. Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, a dazzling son et lumière collaboration with 59 Productions, proved a powerful, often surprisingly upbeat, commission.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert opened with another memorial, a tribute to Oliver Knussen who died on Monday. His Flourish with Fireworks, a scintillating miniature, whirred away, its finely crafted detail precisely sculpted by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  

During WW1, Vaughan Williams served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His mystical Toward the Unknown Region, from 1906, sets text from Walt Whitman. With clean diction from the BBC Symphony Chorus and a strong soprano line, its funereal tread paved the way for The Planets, composed during the war by RVW’s good friend, Gustav Holst. Oramo led a brisk, unsentimental account, beaming smiles making him a picture of benevolence in Jupiter. Mars was full of col legno menace in its relentless 5/4 ostinato, although ensemble threatened to tumble apart. Deft woodwinds marked the puckish Mercury, while Uranus glowered like a malevolent cousin to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Nasal oboe tone marred Venus, however, and the close of Neptune had the female chorus in the Gallery fade away not to nothing, but to a strange whine of hearing aids… not quite the effect Holst had intended.  

<i>Five Telegrams</i> in the Royal Albert Hall © BBC | Jason Sutcliffe
Five Telegrams in the Royal Albert Hall
© BBC | Jason Sutcliffe

In Five Telegrams, Anna Meredith explores the theme of communications during the Great War, from the “fake news” of government propaganda to the jangling announcement of the armistice. The “telegrams” also feature code-breaking, censorship and postcards sent from the front. Meredith’s use of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in that Field Postcard movement was highly effective, layering the anodyne multiple-choice vocabulary from which the soldiers were forced to use to mesmerising effect.

Five Telegrams is no sombre, sepia lament, but a vibrant shot of colour. Meredith writes for huge orchestral forces – the battery of percussion including a thumping scaffolding pipe – but she deploys them deftly. “Spin” has a pounding, mechanistic groove, a suitable partner to Holst’s Mars, harbinger of war, as does “Codes”, reminiscent of 1920s Soviet “machine music”. Brass and percussion from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble bolstered the decibel count. “Redaction” opens with a jaunty pizzicato strings and steel pan bounce, echoed in bold blocks of colour projections, before tam-tam strokes find black strips wiping them away. The solo cello opening “Armistice” provided a rare moment of reflection before a clangorous ending, with something of the hollow victory I find at the end of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

<i>Five Telegrams</i> from Kensington Gardens © Mark Pullinger
Five Telegrams from Kensington Gardens
© Mark Pullinger

Depending on where you were sitting, the awkward shape of the RAH limited the impact of the projections. I was in Kensington Gardens the previous evening, when the exterior of the hall was the canvas for a quite stunning display. Five Telegrams is a powerful work and one that surely has a life beyond this centenary year.