Jonny Greenwood is probably now as famous for his film scores – Phantom Thread, There Will be Blood – as he is for his guitar-wizardry in experimental, miserabilist rock-outfit Radiohead. But for some years Greenwood has been an idiosyncratic, sneaker-clad fixture of the contemporary classical scene, and this late night prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and players in the Proms Youth Music Ensemble would put his music and tastes front and centre.

Jonny Greenwood and Nicolas Magriel
© BBC | Mark Allan

A stark opening from violinist Daniel Pioro, who performed the unaccompanied G minor Passacaglia that concludes Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas. A clean, crisp, and methodical reading of the piece, Pioro’s bright and flexible sound moved through the variations with quicksilver ingenuity and clarity. The last movement of Penderecki’s Sinfonietta for strings followed without pause. The work picked up Biber’s musical thread in its Neo-Baroque inflections, its attacks lucid and its ferocity straining at conductor Hugh Brunt’s tight musical leash, lest its energies dissipate prematurely.

It was a concert of patterning and repetition, about the accumulation and dissolution of musical layers. Greenwood’s first piece on the programme played this out explicitly, the third of three miniatures from his 2018 Water, after a short late poem by Phillip Larkin. Here sinuous piano spirals spun delicate threads over the drone of Greenwood and Nicholas Magriel’s tanpuras. Pioro’s violin returned with its own skittering melodic fragments, and whose developing variations evoked a passacaglia or chaconne.

88 (No.1), performed by Katherine Tinker, speaks of Greenwood’s heterogeneous musical tastes (hardly a surprise to Radiohead fans). A work for solo piano headed by the direction “Like Theolonius Monk copying Glenn Gould playing Bach”, it even encourages the performer to sing along, Gould-style, to the piano’s melodic fragments (Tinker eschewed this feature). Stylistically it blends jazzy cool with contrapuntal wiriness, harmonies pulled straight from Messiaen’s piano works; it is gleaming and weightless music, lingering in the piano’s upper register. Its second part saw vertiginous virtuosity, with glittering, explosive glissandi demanding fingerless gloves – to protect the hands – redolent of Stockhausen’s punishing Klavierstücke X. Tinker’s performance was calculated, elusive at the opening, but blazed with the mechanical determination as she rattled toward a thrilling end.

Daniel Pioro and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Mark Allan

A change of colour next in Steve Reich’s Pulses, like 88 from 2015. I’m yet to be convinced by Reich’s more recent compositions, where he has traded the intensive, taut processes of earlier works for a brighter and more naive lyricism. Pulses features no percussion – save Greenwood’s bass guitar and Tinker’s piano – and drifts about in the bright, open timbres of clarinets, strings, and flute. Pulse circles and anticipates, though its culmination doesn’t quite dazzle, perhaps owing to cloudy, dull harmonies that lack the bite of those in, say, Music for Eighteen Musicians. That said, its textures are pleasant enough reminders of Copland’s diaphanous pastoralism, even creeping towards Mendelssohn at times.

Horror vacui, a world premiere from Greenwood, played us into the night. It was a cross between a Greenwood concerto grosso and a musical thought-experiment. At the heart of this work for 68-strings and solo violin, arrayed in regimental lines up and across the back of the stage, is a striking conceit: the electronic techniques of sound manipulation, contemporary and (now) archaic, but realised through the live, contingent forces of string ensemble. Pioro’s violin provides the orchestra with its raw material, which is then compressed, warped, and scattered. The visual interest was considerable: sounds ripple dramatically across the large forces, and appear to stretch out across the span of the stage.

It’s a piece that plays unusually well in the RAH, whose cavernous acoustic creates the impression of both fullness and emptiness, something echoed in the visual dynamics of the stage, with a desolate tract of empty space between conductor and massed ranks of musicians. There’s plenty of technical inventiveness on display: players blow across the f-holes of their instruments, stamp their feet, hiss eerily, and fire shotgun-blast pizzicatos into the auditorium. The musical reference points are what you might expect from Greenwood – Penderecki’s Threnody, Ligeti’s Atmosphères – but manifests surprises too: some of the stretched-out modulations had the lushness of late Mahler or Bruckner. But for all these lush moments Greewood’s concept lost its lustre after a while, as each of the seven sections illustrates whichever technique belongs to it rather perfunctorily, shedding the piece’s dramatic momentum.