PROM 39: New Sitar Concerto Fails to Unite East and West

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 39: Holst, Nishat Khan, Vaughan Williams Nishat Khan (sitar); BBC National Orchestra of Wales, David Atherton (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2013 (CC)

Nishat Khan performs with David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the BBC Proms Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Nishat Khan performs with David Atherton
and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the BBC Proms
Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Holst: Indra
Nishat Khan: The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1) World première
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2)

Connections and threads running through programmes at the Proms can be tenuous. The link between the Holst (the title, Indra, gives a clue to its Hindu inspiration) and a sitar concerto by Nishat Khan is fairly obvious, but we were also offered the explanation that, just as Khan’s piece is a “journeying through the night”, so “there is a journey of sorts in Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony, a symphonic one that takes in glimpses of London life”. Not sure I buy that, but I applaud the effort.

It was good to see Holst’s 1903 symphonic poem Indra on the programme, edited (including cuts) by Colin Matthews. This is not the first glimpse of Matthews at this Proms season; in fact I reviewed the UK première of his piece Turning Point (Prom 21), a piece that I found rather outstayed its welcome. Matthews is active as editor as well as composer, and it is to be applauded that he has brought this score to life. Indra received what was possibly its first-ever performance as recently as 1987; despite the fact Parry had given it a run-through at some point early on, it had never made the public purview. The fact is, Indra is a lovely piece, beautifully, indeed magically scored. The insubstantial nature of the BBC NOW’s strings was rather obvious, a pity given the plethora of Romantic gestures coupled with a sense of organic growth to the climax. The climax itself was rather underwhelming, which was a shame as this performance delivered much to enjoy. The work’s programmatic basis is taken from the Rig Veda, painting in sound Indra as the God of rains and storms and his battle with the dragon Vritra. Indra is victorious, leading to a celebratory coda. Pre-echoes of The Planets are as obvious as they are fascinating. Perfect for the Proms, then, in almost every sense (British, rare, played with conviction by a BBC house orchestra), and the ideal opener.

Nishat Khan has previously appeared at the Proms in 1989 and in 2008; neither is this the first outing for a sitar concerto (Ravi Shankar’s back in 2005 with soloist Anoushka Shankar). This was, however, the first outing for The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1, 2012), a BBC commission enjoying its World Première. Khan writes his own booklet note, explaining in it that the piece includes an “exchange of stories of different cultures”. There is improvisation couched within a generally notated score. It tells the story of a nocturnal love, with the two protagonists eventually “entering the world of our dreams, absorbed into the moonlight”. Echoes of Verklärte Nacht in some ways, perhaps? If only the musical inspiration matched the evocativeness of the ideas. The orchestral contributions, nodding to minimalism at times – actually quite Philip Glass-like – occasionally even invoking a British pastoral school region – the end of the second movement – and the horn-call imitations of Sunday morning bells in Peter Grimes, were by far the weakest as Khan tried to be all “Occidental”. The portions when he played solo and allowed himself to fly in his native terrain were by far the most impressive, conveying a real feeling of coming home and contained some stunning playing. At around 35 minutes, the piece cannot sustain its arguments. Personally, I’d rather hear Khan in 35 minutes of raga. David Atherton marshalled his forces and accompanied excellently.

Finally, Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. Now this really was music that was at home here, and it was performed by an orchestra that had somehow transformed itself during the course of the interval. This was a tremendous account, far from a Vaughan Williams bathed in relentless nostalgia. It was alive to the score’s nuances while projecting a true sense of drama. The strings sounded radiant in the first movement; the cor anglais solo of the second (Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer) was simply superb, as were the beautifully rich brass chords and the solo viola contributions, The Scherzo (a Nocturne) contained wonderful plateaux of calm, providing proper contrast to the expansive lines and sheer power of the finale, whose Big Ben chimes were, alas, spoiled by an errant mobile phone ringtone. The second half of the concert, in fact, vindicated the whole evening.

Colin Clarke