The lunacy of Brexit notwithstanding, Britain isn’t badly off these days in terms of international clout. As I sit writing this we’re wreathed in gold at the Olympics. And no less significantly – though it doesn’t get the TV coverage – we’re generating arguably the best new music being written in the world at large.
A week or so ago Exterminating Angels, Thomas Adès’s new opera, had a seriously successful premiere at the Salzburg Festival (I wasn’t there, but the reviews were generally in awe of its achievement). And at home, the Proms have had a run of first-rate premieres by composers such as Mark Simpson, Helen Grime, Huw Watkins – names that may not be household ones but carry considerable weight and still more promise on the international music circuit.
Grime turned up twice over, with paired works – Two Eardley Pictures – that respond to landscape paintings by the artist Joan Eardley, and do so in terms of ear-catching lyrical brilliance. Performed in separate concerts by the BBC Scottish Symphony and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, they certainly caught my attention – as did Simpson’s Asrafel, which was a grand symphonic poem named after the Koranic angel who (according to Edgar Allen Poe) “has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures”.
As performed by the BBC Philharmonic, Simpson’s score suggested a magnificently transcendental beauty – not completely sorted out by the conductor Juanjo Mena, but enough to let the audience know what they should listen for when it gets done again: its repertoire potential is indubitable.
But the star of all these new Proms pieces was the Watkins: an exquisite (in the best sense of the word) cello concerto written for the composer’s own brother, Paul Watkins, to premiere with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There’s been a focus on the cello in the Proms this year, signalled on opening night with the Elgar Concerto and continuing with the intense intimacy of Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un Monde Lointain: another concerto, played with mesmerising eloquence by soloist Johannes Moser.
Watkins’s score is intimate as well, much of it quietly reflective. But it registers with magical if whispered strength and a distinctive Englishness, haunted occasionally by Britten but more often by the ghost of Michael Tippett. I was captivated by this music; and to hear it was to realise that new British writing is no longer fearsomely impenetrable. Watkins and his kind are writing works with an immediate appeal as well as long-term durability. It’s time for audiences to wake up to that fact and reconnect with the new music world they’ve shunned – in many cases for good reason – in the recent past.