Listening to an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall is a bit like watching a gladiatorial contest between the orchestra and the hall. If the orchestra prevails, the sound comes through clean and well-defined. If not, the hall's giant size and booming acoustic turn the results to mush. Unfortunately, the orchestra's odds of winning are about the same as the average gladiator's chances of reaching a comfortable old age: many try, only a handful survive.

Clive Barda
Clive Barda

At last night's Prom, the Philharmonia came out the unquestioned winner. You had the sense that conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen knew exactly what he wanted from his players and had them comprehensively drilled into producing it. Throughout the programme, the string section was particularly impressive in its ability to stay clear and precise through delicate, soft passages and then retain the same precision in the fortissimi.

The highly varied programmed opened with a real belter: The Foundry, written in 1927 by the Russian composer Alexander Mosolov. It's a compelling four minute depiction of a vast piece of machinery which surrounds, encloses and exhausts you. I'm not sure I could cope with much more than four minutes of this - but it's quite an awe-inspiring experience. It seems a pity that this is the only work by Mosolov that finds its way into the repertoire.

Next up was the UK première of Arvo Pärt's Symphony no. 4, 'Los Angeles', first performed in January 2009 at the L. A. Philharmonic. It's the polar opposite of The Foundry: quiet, slow, contemplative and scored only for strings and various percussion instruments. It contains some beautiful music: Pärt has an uncanny ability to take simple lines and swell them into something very moving, which is complemented (as in the Cantus for Benjamin Britten) by percussive notes at unpredicatable times on the off-beat. But I had real trouble with this work because of its sheer length: I simply wasn't able to follow 40 minutes of very soft music which didn't seem to go anywhere. The effect wasn't helped by the frequent rests in which it seemed as if half the audience had a cough. There was some lovely musical material, but after the first quarter of an hour, I wanted it to end. Pärt himself joined the curtain call and was given a huge round of applause: he's a strong candidate for the current "Greatest Living Composer" title and the Proms audience were obviously delighted to show their appreciation.

We were back to a much brighter tone for the second half, starting with Ravel's Left Hand piano concerto. This opens with a set of very quiet repeated figures on double bass and contrabassoon which form a sort of background wash out of which the main theme emerges triumphantly. The work is a favourite of mine and I've listened to it on CD many times without ever really having heard the opening, because most loudspeakers don't have the bass response to make it properly audible. It's therefore really exciting to hear the real thing in a live concert hall, especially played with the quality that the Philharmonia were producing last night. Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet struggled to achieve lift-off, I thought: his solo opening should be every bit as vivid as the loud orchestral tutti that precedes it, whereas it felt a little leaden, and I felt that the piano was dragging the orchestra back a little. But this improved rapidly as the piece progressed, and Bavouzet was in fine form as the piano moved into the quicksilver passages and the repeat of its initial theme towards the end of the work.

The concert ended with Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, closing with some truly thunderous moments, assisted by the Royal Albert Hall's organ at full volume. Splendid.