The BBC Proms returned to Camden’s Roundhouse, in a programme of contemporary and 20th-century music with special new commissions marking the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War One, under the baton of composer George Benjamin and in the assured hands of the London Sinfonietta

George Benjamin and the London Sinfonietta © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
George Benjamin and the London Sinfonietta
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

We opened with a classic statement of avant-garde intent from American autodidact Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question for strings, flutes, and solo trumpet. It was a smart way to open, making us alert to the spatial and acoustic idiosyncrasies of the Roundhouse: off to stage left, translucent strings, pianissimo throughout; enigmatic solo trumpet concealed behind a veil on the right of the auditorium, enigmatically but insistently asking “the question”; and four flutes offering their increasingly desperate responses from the centre of the stage. 

But the centrepiece of the first half was showcasing four new works of striking brevity, three of which set texts contemporaneous to World War One, sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley. Georg Friedrich Haas’ the last minutes of inhumanity sets a dialogue between two traumatised army doctors from Karl Kraus, rather uncannily performed by one singer, sometimes speaking and sometimes singing, as if representative of the fractured consciousness of war. Haas’ musical texture was full of skin-crawling string harmonics and woozy luminosity, like flares over the battlefield, with vibraphone and harp and floating woodwind chords.

Hannah Kendall’s Verdala was purely instrumental. The title refers to the ship that carried Jamaican soldiers to Europe, that was caught in an Atlantic blizzard. It’s a tricky work, full of doublings and echoes, melodic motifs bouncing antiphonally around the ensemble, with patterns emerging out of the ensemble and then climaxing into a more jerky, Scherzo-like section, before a more straightforwardly lyrical chorale that closes the piece out. 

Isabel Mundry’s Gefallen saw Bickley return in a setting of German war poet August Stramm. Whereas Kendall had more light and air, Stramm’s visceral and fractured poetry lent itself to a more densely expressionistic musical language, which lingered in the lower registers of the ensemble and made use of its more raw sonorities, with rough, gunshot pizzicatos and bows played close to the bridge of the instruments.  

Luca Francesconi’s We Wept set the words of Dolly Shepherd, a mechanic based in France during the war. Bickley whispered and shimmered: “We wept… Because the silence was so awful.” An eerie opening, with flutter-tongued flute and ghostly strings, gave way to more lyrical, meandering music, before frantic vocal pyrotechnics on “silence”, as if anxiously trying to forestall the piece’s own ending. 

As George Benjamin indicated at the outset, the concert was dedicated to the memory of the late Oliver Knussen. Perhaps that was what leant Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which closed the first half, such emotional heft. Intended as a memorial to Debussy, here it commemorated Knussen too, a renowned interpreter of Stravinsky. Symphonies has some of the most exquisitely balanced and weighted chords in musical history, particularly in its final bars, all of which are counterbalanced by blocks of brass fanfares and a spare, reptilian lyricism. Much depends on the piquancy of these contrasts, and the London Sinfonietta certainly pulled it off, with thoughtfully rendered textures and taut brass, and keening clarinet lines in those sinewy, recursive melodies, reminiscent of Debussy’s Children’s Corner.

The second half featured only one work: Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, for massed winds, brass and percussion. At 30 minutes it is a comparatively slight piece compared to the hour-and-a-half gigantism of his Turangalîla-Symphonie or Des canyons aux étoiles…. but its spiritual stakes are just as high. BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service threw down quite a gauntlet when introducing the piece: “… these musicians will literally create a gateway to another dimension”. Or your money back. 

The Roundhouse © George Benjamin
The Roundhouse
© George Benjamin

This work of 1964 was intended to commemorate the dead of the Second World War, cast in five moments, with epigraphs from scripture and Thomas Aquinas. Messiaen’s piece channels the epic monumentality of Gothic architecture and Ancient Egyptian tombs. Its music is cast in blocks of texture and colour and weight, juxtaposed on a grand scale: it is like walking around an enormous set of glowering, enigmatic abstract structures. The enormous percussive climaxes, featuring extravagant use of the three tam-tams, were ear-splitting, devastating – an appalling glimpse into an abyssal world beyond. 

George Benjamin’s monastic control of tempi created that paradoxical effect of Messiaen’s music where time appears to have stopped yet somehow manages to fly by. The final movement (“Et j’entendis la voix d’une foule immense…”) was particularly special in this regard: the inexorable percussive undertow to the brass chorales felt like staring into infinity, before an apocalyptic final crescendo. The silence afterwards as the blast from the tam-tam dissolved into thin air was unearthly.