A guiding thread of Hindu philosophy ran through Prom 38’s programme which brought together music by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century with one of its neglected non-comformists to create one of the most exciting and uplifting concerts I have attended for some time.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

John Foulds’ Three Mantras was receiving only its second outing at the Proms (its belated première was in 1998, some 68 years after it was completed). Originally intended as part of his mysterious ‘Sanskrit opera’ Avatara, it forms a free-standing symphonic suite in three movements. The work is inspired by the endlessly repeating verbal formulae (mantras) of Mantra Yoga, and each movement was subtitled as a “vision” (terrestrial, celestial and cosmic). But this is no pre-minimalist work of repeating figures and motifs: the repetitions are continually varied, building on small cells to carry larger dramatic structures to create a richly-textured and impressive unity. The first mantra is hectic, almost exhausting in its frenetic rhythms and vigorous themes. The second is ethereal and meditative, its time-bending atmosphere akin to Messiaen at his most mystical with its female chorus whose wordless lines float above the orchestra before the music accumulates motion and decoration. Marked “inesorabile” (inexorable), the final movement bursts upon the scene. Elemental, almost barbaric, it is full of polyrhythmic complexities, seemingly chaotic but in fact based on a very strictly worked out study of a South Indian raga

Comparisons have been drawn between Gustav Holst and John Foulds: both were fascinated by the music of India, and some commentators have pointed to close connections between the Three Mantras and Holst’s The Planets. But based on last night’s performance by the BBC Philharmonic, I felt there were more apt comparisons to be drawn between the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky, and even Gershwin, in the outer movements, while the middle movement, a study of control and musical empathy between orchestra and chorus, prefigured the music of Henryk Gorécki and Arvo Pärt. Conductor Juanjo Mena harnessed the forces of the BBC Philharmonic to create an energetic, tightly-paced and powerful performance, with some impressive contributions from the brass section.

Like Foulds, French composer Olivier Messiaen also had a strong interest in the music of the Indian subcontinent, and his Turangalîla-symphonie combines intricate Indian rhythms and melodies with the composer’s fascination with the myth of Tristan and Isolde. Composed for Yvonne Loriod, a student of Messiaen’s and a remarkable pianist who became his second wife, it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but was actually premiered with Leonard Bernstein at the helm. Listening to the exuberant jazzy rhythms and brass fanfares, one can well imagine what Bernstein made of this work.

In addition to its massive orchestral forces and Bruckner-esque scale (it is scored in 10 movements and lasts over an hour), there are parts for piano and the curious ondes martenot, an electric keyboard instrument whose haunting, swooping glissandi sounds were much favoured by the composer.

Steven Osborne was the pianist for this performance and his affinity for Messiaen’s writing was evident in his precision and sparkling tone. Few pianists are willing to tackle Messiaen’s music and ever fewer can pull it off convincingly, but Osborne is certainly one of them. The spooky sounds of the ondes martenot were sometimes lost in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. Not so the trombones whose interjections were spectacularly sonorous. In the sixth movement, the Jardin du sommeil d’amour (Garden of the sleep of love), lush silky strings provided an atmospheric canvas onto which the piano, vibraphone and woodwind drew the sounds of birdsong. The finale was a breathless ecstatic outpouring, a dance of transcendent joy leading to a tumultuous conclusion. The brass shone here, and indeed throughout the work, as did the large percussion section. There were also notable solos from the principal oboe and clarinet, and one had the sense of the entire orchestra and conductor celebrating the music’s sheer weirdness and glorious life-affirming qualities.

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