Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes (2011–12) consists of six brief movements for six-string electric violin and string orchestra. The solo instrument’s two extra strings extend its range down another two fifths, beyond even viola territory, and the electric aspect allows the tone to be manipulated in a variety of ways, as well as for echo effects and the like. The movements, equipped with fanciful titles such as “Abandoned Playground” and “The Beyonds of Mirrors”, are evocative sketches, impressionistic, perhaps in the manner of Ravel.

Sakari Oramo © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

If all this sounds fascinating on paper, unfortunately it didn’t come across so well in concert last night, where the sound setup allowed the solo part little chance to shine: a coarse, unappetizing sound, poorly balanced with the orchestra, made the whole thing tough to take in, as well as seeming a little 1980s in its use of technology. There was no doubting Francesco D’Orazio’s expertise as soloist, nor the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo’s commitment to the piece, but unfortunately this performance may well have come across a lot better on Radio 3 than it did live. This is particularly frustrating for two reasons: firstly, because the Royal Albert Hall can, under the right conditions, be a brilliant venue for electroacoustic music (various Stockhausen Proms have proved this in the past), and secondly, because I’m sure the piece actually has a lot to offer. Sadly, however, this was not the performance it might have been. Here’s hoping that Dean’s future opportunities in London – he’s the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new Artist in Association – will cast his work in better light.

The rest of this Proms programme, though not at all thematically related, was a lot more rewarding. Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex made up the second half, and this was an impressive, dramatic rendering which showed an orchestra in electric form, even without the sound engineers. This curious creation of Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau is not the easiest of works to pull off, with its heavy doses of irony and deliberately stilted action. The original idea was that the singers would perform their parts from static positions, moving only their heads and arms, in a stern, perhaps ritualistic way; likewise, the choice of Latin as a language – rather perverse, when the original was by Sophocles – makes the work seem somewhat emotionally distant. But despite all this, it’s a thrilling score that Stravinsky penned, and Oramo’s reading was proof that this is in fact a plausible dramatic work. Best of all in the monumental closing section, the BBC Symphony Orchestra were scintillating, the brass especially.

Allan Clayton © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Allan Clayton
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The music is enhanced by a narrator, who pops up before each scene to explain what is about to happen. Here, we had the actor Rory Kinnear, whose easy, natural delivery was engaging and effective, in keeping with Oramo’s interpretation. The lion’s share of the singing goes to the title character and his wife/mother, and we were lucky to have not just a mellifluous Allan Clayton as Oedipus, but also contralto Hilary Summers as a superb Jocasta. Summers’ totally distinctive voice, incredibly rich in the low register and piercing and pure higher up, proved perfect for capturing this character. Her duet with Clayton was a particular highlight – Clayton’s headstrong king was likewise well characterised, though never at the expense of an elegant, lyrical melodic line.

Of the smaller roles, Brindley Sherratt’s firm Tiresias was particularly fine, and Juha Uusitalo’s Creon pleasantly strident but outdone by the orchestra’s brass and winds. Duncan Rock and Samuel Boden were effective in their minor parts as Messenger and Shepherd, Rock’s repeated cries “Divum Jocastae caput mortuum!” (“The divine Jocasta is dead!”) cutting incisively through the texture in the closing stages. And the chorus, which combined the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers, made a huge, resonant sound. It was an impressive performance all round. If for me it didn’t quite capture the curious sense of humour that Stravinsky evinces in this piece, it may only be because John Eliot Gardiner’s superb interpretation with the LSO last year – a recording of which has recently been released – is still ringing in my ears.

Beethoven’s Egmont overture was the concert’s opener, and given a cultured, eloquent airing with some particularly incisive string playing. This may not have been the perfect concert, but it was proof that Oramo’s rapport with his new orchestra has grown rapidly – I’m sure the best is yet to come.