In 2008 Jonathan Dove was invited on a climate-change awareness voyage to the Arctic. It has already provided the inspiration for a church opera, A Walk from the Garden, which explored the issue through the medium of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. For Gaia Theory, Dove this time turns to the work of James Lovelock, which concerns itself with the interaction between Earth and the life it hosts. Lovelock himself describes this relationship as a dance, making it natural for Dove to set to music.

Jonathan Dove © Andrew Palmer
Jonathan Dove
© Andrew Palmer

Cross-rhythms and syncopations created a wonderful bird-like opening, which the BBC Symphony Orchestra treated with a sprightly delicacy. There were some intonation issues at the upper reaches of the horns and violins, but these did not detract from the overall dance-like quality of the first movement, which broadened into a sweeping, dramatic finale. Dove is best known as a choral and operatic composer, and sometimes the abscence of voices was keenly felt in the mesh of minimalistic rhythmic ideas, which had more than a nod to John Adams.

 The second movement evoked the tintinnabuli minimalism of Pärt and Gorecki to create a tranquil, watery scene in contrast to the fire and air from the first movement. The third movement began in halting fashion, although it was not always clear how much of this was in the score and how much of this was down to timing issues with the orchestra. In places, it felt as if Josep Pons was struggling to hold the movement together, after handling the first two movements so masterfully. It felt like this final movement could and should be more fun than it sounded here in its première, right down to the final, cut short, cymbal crash.

In the middle of this evocation of the natural world, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major felt bizarrely like a programme filler, all the more so for the rather polite rendering by the orchestra. Soloist Ingrid Fliter’s performance was, in contrast, full of energy. She made light work of the glittering runs in the outer movements, and brought delicate nuance, in places hinting towards the Romanticism of Beethoven and Schubert. It didn’t help that Pons was behind soloist Ingrid Fliter; the orchestra often felt slightly out of sync with her, both in terms of tempo and shaping of the music, although they saved her when she suffered a momentary lapse of memory in the middle of the second movement. It would be a shame if that were to be the enduring impression of her Proms debut, when there was so much to savour from her performance.

The opening of Daphnis et Chloé reconnected us with the natural world invoked by Dove’s music, growing from nothing into a mythical scene. Conductor and orchestra felt at home here, as did the BBC Symphony Chorus, who joined them in this concert version of Ravel’s “symphonie choréographique”. There was a huge range of dramatic expression, although at times it was difficult to follow the exact nature of the story; always a risk in concert versions of works usually staged. However, when the music was this good, it was enough just to sit back and listen to the gorgeous sounds, from the exquisite pianissimos of the strings, desolate cor anglais and fierce brass.

 Ravel’s wonderful orchestration was fully explored, creating a wonderful atmosphere in the auditorium. This was especially evident in the opening of the third movement, Ravel’s stunning sunrise scene. Pons was at his most masterful here, with dawn breaking through glistening woodwinds. Eventually the sultry dawn gave way to the rousing “General Dance”. From this performance, it was hard to believe that this piece had been overshadowed at its première by its companion, the notorious Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Here, it was every bit as sultry and expressive, and rightly the star of the show.