Prom 70: Jonny Greenwood/BBCNOW /Daniel Pioro/Brunt review – challenging and intense

Royal Albert Hall, London
The Radiohead guitarist proves he’s no classical dilettante with this rigorously curated prom and the premiere of his own startling piece for strings, Horror Vacui

There is no shortage of people from the world of rock entering the ambit of “serious” orchestral composition. But even many of the better practitioners – Jóhann Jóhannsson or Clint Mansell, for example – write music that often betrays their background in the digital world. You can almost hear the vestiges of music-making software in their arrangements, as if they have been plotted on graph paper.

This is never the case with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose orchestral film scores have an intense rigour and musicianship that are certainly on display tonight. We hear extracts from his 2012 suite Water, for instance, which was composed entirely in the octatonic scale popular with Rimsky-Korsakov and Messiaen – but here Greenwood gives the melody the intensity of an Indian raga by playing an accompanying drone on a tambura. His devilishly complex piece for solo piano, 88, is brilliantly executed by pianist Katherine Tinker, who sounds as though she’s playing a transcription of a Thelonious Monk solo at double-speed.

The string section get intimate with their instruments, with lead violinist Daniel Pioro, during Horror Vacui.
The string section get intimate with their instruments, with lead violinist Daniel Pioro, during Horror Vacui. Photograph: Mark Allan

Greenwood has had music performed at the Proms before but this is the first he has curated, and he uses it to showcase his favourite composers. There is a strident movement from the first Sinfonietta by his hero and friend Penderecki, and a violin solo by Biber that gives violinist Daniel Pioro the chance to show off his double-stopping skills, while Greenwood also provides the suitably throbbing, muted bass guitar on Steve Reich’s Pulse. The centrepiece, however, is the premier of Greenwood’s Horror Vacui. At first it’s hard to work out what is happening: Pioro is playing at the front of the stage, surrounded by 68 strings players who have been placed, almost confrontationally, on raised platforms, and it sounds as though Pioro’s woozy, angular violin solo is being treated electronically. Eventually you realise that the echoes and digital delays are all being reproduced by the string section in real time.

Greenwood trained as a violinist and is clearly fascinated by the glitches and irregularities of stringed instruments, and here the players appear to be using plectrums or the backs of their bows to recreate ghostly electronic effects. It’s a startling, terrifying and challenging way to end a compelling Prom.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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