Oliver Knussen has taken the BBC Symphony Orchestra on some interesting journeys during his relationship with them, as both composer and conductor. Of all these journeys, Prom 19 surely ranks among the most fascinating. Under Knussen’s masterful conducting, the orchestra and Claire Booth gave us a scintillating if sometimes overwhelming exhibition of six intense early Twentieth Century works.

© BBC/Sven Arnstein
© BBC/Sven Arnstein

Three of the six pieces were by early Twentieth Century French avant-garde members of ‘Les Six’: Debussy and the much under-appreciated Honegger. One can only speculate as to whether six pieces were included in homage to the number in this famous group, but tonight’s other composers - Berg, Bridge and Castiglioni – certainly showed their influence in the moodiness, preoccupation with organic experience, instrumental and tonal experimentalism.

Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 gave a powerful oral account of riding the 231 steam train. This is the most popular piece in Honegger’s unfairly underperformed repertoire, and it’s easy to see why. It’s heavily programmatic, building layers of repeated scurrying motifs and playing with tempo to reflect a locomotive’s movements. In terms of dynamics, most of it chugged along at a steady mf, but the real excitement was in some sparkling moments of rhythmic and melodic interplay between brass and strings when the ‘train’ was moving fastest, and in the Double Basses’ strong, brooding underlay.

How different Pastoral d’été is from the pacy bombast of our Pacific train ride. Its rhapsodic contemplation on nature began with a French Horn solo, played with a cantabile mood over strokes in the Double Basses that reminded one of sleep-breathing. Confident Bass pizzicato heralded a vigorous rustic dance from the violins, before we were dropped back into repetitive string murmuring and the initial themes. This was seductive, intimate playing (always a feat in a hall of this size), from the now slimmed-down orchestra. Simple in both sentiment and harmony, it was full-bodied in performance. Arguably, few of Honegger’s other works have quite this level of exquisiteness, but Knussen and his players gave a good argument for listening to more.

If Honegger is underappreciated, Frank Bridge is even more so. Famous for being Benjamin Britten’s pupil, this complex man left a varied repertoire of orchestral, choral and chamber music, much of which absorbed his disillusionment and bitterness at the impact of World War One. These emotions are projected onto the disturbing musical narrative of There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1927), a tragic ‘Impression’ which takes its title from Hamlet’s narration of the death of Ophelia. Haunting lines such as ‘Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke’ and ‘she chanted snatches of old tunes; As one incapable of her own distress’ live in its unsettling bitonality, chromaticism and oscillating snatches of phrase. The clarinets and oboes stood out with skittering descending phrases, but all aspects came through strongly and with pleasing contrast.

An interval would have been welcome at this point, but Alban Berg’s Der Wein was still to come. Knussen brought out its inherent melodrama, tenderly observing the craftsmanship of Berg’s playfully incomplete palindrome, and giving vitality to the tone-rows. Joining them for the only time this evening, Claire Booth was utterly absorbing as she sung the piece’s three passionate Baudelaire poems, celebrating escapism through wine. Like most soloists in the Albert Hall, she lost the battle to be heard above the orchestra, unsurprising considering how low this piece lies in the Soprano voice. When her voice did rose above the brass it had a gorgeous, almost metallic shine, enhanced by strong diction and a tight vibrato.

This first half was stimulating in itself, but the second half was even more so. It would take a small essay to describe Niccolo Castiglioni’s 11 Musical Poems. From scintillating augmented triads in Fiori di ghiaccio (flowers of ice) to evolving spirals of string melody in La Brina (Hoar Frost), the piece’s minimalist repetitions and effects such as harmonics in the Double Basses were challenging but brilliantly executed. The hordes of gongs, hung bars and other metal percussion which had decorated the stage for the first half suddenly came to life in a crystalline sonic depiction of ice.

After this stunning sensual experience, Debussy’s La Mer felt like a warm-down. But the BBC SO still had energy left. Back to their full symphonic proportions, they evoked the moods and times of the sea with satisfying impressionistic sweeps. There was great attention to detail too, a solo trumpet’s sumptious jazz motif at the end of the second scherzo movement and a cor anglais’ dancing shortly before summed up the high standard of the concert from the first to the last note. Quite an achievement considering the variety of repertoire and orchestration on display.

Five composers and hundreds of emotional and musical states later, the revelation in emotional and innovative writing was over. But I’d happily sit through the whole, epic evening again.

*****