Some pop musicians dip a toe into classical music to get whatever the opposite of “street-cred” might be (Islington dinner-party cred? Sunday-supplement cred?) and then retreat in a hurry.
Not Jonny Greenwood. Since his school days, the driving creative force behind the art-rock behemoth that is Radiohead has had that fascination with the simplest building-blocks of music, combined in formally intriguing ways, which is classical music’s hallmark.
On Tuesday night, we were offered his latest piece, in a cleverly conceived and superbly executed Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, under the incisive and perfectly precise baton of Hugh Brunt. The evening launched with the great Passacaglia for solo violin by a German composer born half a century before Bach, Heinrich Biber. In fact, in Daniel Pioro’s wonderful performance, Biber’s piece came across as an impassioned oration, a million miles away from the ticking mechanisms and glassy otherworldly atmospherics of what was to come.
No matter. It was a joy to hear it, and it was a joy to hear Steve Reich’s surprisingly gentle, almost pastoral Pulse too, in which the modest-sized orchestra was joined by Greenwood on bass guitar. In between came a startlingly energetic, spiky fugue for strings from the Sinfonietta by Krzysztof Penderecki, chosen one imagines as a salute to the venerable avant-garde Polish composer who’s has been such an influence on Greenwood.
As for Greenwood’s own pieces, they proved that as a composer he continues to grow. The gentle, mystically perfumed violin-and-piano patterns of Water, unfolding over twanging drones on the Indian tanpura played by Greenwood and Nicholas Magriel, and the dazzling piano virtuosity of 88 (no 1), played with steel-fingered assurance by Katherine Tinker, were certainly engaging. But his new piece, composed for Daniel Pioro and the 68 superb solo string players of the BBC NOW and BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, was on a different level of ambition.
This was a delightfully naïve yet sophisticated exercise in re-imagining sound-effects obtainable in a studio, such as booming reverberations, or repeated “dying-away” echoes, or uncanny slidings of whole sound-complexes up and down. Every sad drooping phrase or vehement outburst or glassy high note from the violin was seized on and magically transformed by the string players, who were sometimes called on to blow into or slap their instruments.
The form didn’t quite work – the piece seemed to end several times – but in terms of musical invention, it was easily the most engaging premiere of the season so far.
This Prom will be broadcast on BBC4 on September 13; or hear it for 30 days on BBC Sounds, and watch it on BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until September 14. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms