When is a symphony not a symphony? When it’s Britten’s wordless Sinfonia da Requiem or Janáček’s brassy Sinfonietta or even Raymond Yiu’s brand new Symphony, a song cycle in all but name that received its world première on Tuesday evening. In addition to this trio, Tuesday’s Prom included Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, a work having little in common with the others apart from sharing the same year of composition as the Janáček – 1926.

Emily Beynon © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Emily Beynon
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert opened with Britten’s anti-war opus from 1940, given a vibrant and committed performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner’s efficient direction. From the violence of the Lacrimosa’s first bar Gardner made clear that this Sinfonia was going to be a sort of gloves off, no-nonsense account, and most of the time this approach worked. But, in a first movement built on a series of gradual crescendos, climaxes were over-egged and the impact of the final fff section, exciting though it was, never quite lifted me off my seat. Setting a homicidal tempo, the Dies irae was remarkably taut, and its mechanistic rhythms savagely conveyed. It was, however, the pure spring waters of the Requiem aeternam that left the deepest impression, where flutes, horns and harp consoled and strings glowed in the closing lullaby – all beautifully rendered.  

Born just three years before Britten died, Hong Kong-born Raymond Yiu (now London-based) is a newcomer to the Proms, and judging by the audience and orchestra’s reaction to his most recent work, he will doubtless acquire plenty of admirers. (His opera The Original Chinese Conjuror was premièred at Aldeburgh Festival in 2006.) A Proms commission, Symphony is scored for large orchestra (with multitudinous percussion) and solo countertenor, and sets texts (in four of the five movements) by Walt Whitman, C.P. Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne that explore themes of memory, loss and love in all its variety. No brief summary can do justice to Yiu’s expansive Symphony which is an eclectic work lasting nearly 30 minutes drawing on a range of styles that, amongst others, have reminiscences of John Adams, Michael Tippett and even 70’s disco – although I also heard Broadway schmaltz and thought that the John Wilson Orchestra had suddenly taken up residence. Particularly striking was Yiu’s dazzling orchestral palette, his imaginative setting of words and the countertenor Andrew Watts who, despite occasional word loss, gave a commanding performance.

After the interval it was Emily Beynon’s turn to impress and impress she did in Nielsen’s two-movement Flute Concerto. By turns lyrical and contrary, the work provides cameo roles from within the orchestra, most audibly from the bass trombone whose sardonic parpings (conjuring an image, for me, of Falstaff) created a witty foil to Beynon’s spirited chirrupings. Her range of expression and varied tone colour made her a natural executor for this enigmatic work. Even more puzzling is why the work has had to wait 90 years or so for its Proms debut.

Following this modestly-scored work the stage filled for Janáček’s Sinfonietta and the presence of 13 additional players (trumpets and euphoniums) whetted the appetite visually before a note had been sounded. Its five movements were given buoyant pacing and the work’s opening and closing pageantry was especially stirring. It was, however, the five movements heard earlier and belonging to Raymond Yiu’s Symphony that crowned the evening.